SOMERVILLE, MASS. — OUTSIDE under the street lights the falling snow is oddly granular, the first of the season. Inside a crowded Johnny D's at Davis Square, the voice, songs, and guitar of spotlighted Tish Hinojosa are the warm echoes of the Southwest.
She sings of scruffy cowboys in white shirts on a Saturday night, of Hispanics crossing many kinds of borders, and tales of the heart that could melt adobe.
The urban crowd is not here for music rooted in jazz or rock. These are multicultural seekers, drawn by a slim, dark-haired woman with a soprano voice that's a little like finding deep shade on the hottest day of a San Antonio summer. Humanity is the core in every song.
Above the usual muzzing crowd, and fork-and-spoon-clatter of people eating while they are listening, Hinojosa's pure and sometimes haunting voice has equal parts of country, western swing, folk, and Hispanic rhythms. The timbre and ring of her voice has been compared by critics to Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, and k.d. lang.
Music critics all across the United States have heralded Hinosoja (ee-no-HO-sah) for her Tex-Mex blend that appeals equally to Hispanics and non-Hispanics.
The songs she writes and sings transcend cultures and regions with the sense that an indefatigble human spirit is as common to both as apple pie and fajitas. As in her life - a first generation Mexican-American - so in her music, she mixes two cultures and the result is a celebration.
"Hispanics and Anglos probably hear my music differently," she says in an interview before her performance, "but I think they go away with the same message, that it is so much better to have the perspectives of two worlds."
Hinojosa and Rounder Records have just released her new CD called "Country Swing," her first with Rounder, but her fifth since 1987. Her first major release, "Homeland," in 1989 on A&M records was a critical hit in the US, but sold better in Europe, and surprisingly well in South Korea where one of her songs became the theme for a television show and "went triple platinum," Hinojosa says. Another CD, "Taos to Tennessee," has recently been re-issued.
She has been featured on such television shows as Austin City Limits, Nashville Now, VH-1's Americana Special, The Texas Connection, on American Public Radio's Mountain Stage, and a number of National Public Radio programs. In 1991 she toured all over Europe.
Her poignant song about migrant workers, "Something in the Rain," was turned into a video funded by the National Migrant Resource Program to call attention to migrant exposure to hazardous pesticides.
"It's almost impossible for me to say no to people who see me as a role model to help a cause," she says of requests that come to her at her home in Austin, Texas. As a woman, a married mother of two, and a Hispanic, her work to support various educational and political causes "shows me there is a real need for heroes out there."
Hinojosa grew up as the 13th child in a large family in San Antonio, listening to her mother sing with Mexican songs on the radio. "Sometimes when you're the last one in a family that big," she says with a gentle laugh, "you can get off the ride and watch it go by."
It is this kind of observation that turned her a few years ago to writing her own songs. Her "Border Trilogy" on the "Homeland" CD was three songs about Hispanics looking and working for hope in a new land. The second song, "West Side of Town," is the story of her mother and father making a "good life the hard way."
With plenty of compassion for Hispanics struggling in this country, Hinojosa often looks for any Hispanics who might be working in the kitchens or washing dishes at the clubs where she performs.
"I'll make friends with them," she says, "and they'll talk about their lives and their separations from their families. It's an outsider's fugitive kind of life, to work hard at menial jobs, send money home to Mexico, and try hard to learn English."
Hinojosa knows she has reached a plateau in the journey of her career. "My foundation is the roots of my Hispanic culture," she says. "I'm paying my dues now, learning a lot."
On some songs she is so extraordinarily in control that a certain passion or excitement is missing. Her delivery and sentiment are superbly honed, but performers win audiences with energy as well as messages. With all the talent she has, the distance from embers to flame can't be too far. Cutting loose now and then is just like crossing the border into a new world.
Away from her family, playing in small clubs every other night with a few larger stops here and there, is grueling. "I hope I'm reaching more and more people," she says, "and that the market for my kind of music will increase."
She is critical of a media-saturated society that conditions people for "cheap sells" in the glitz and posturing of a Madonna. "The real challenge for Madonna," she says, "would be for her to put her clothes back on, and then see what she can do."
What Hinojosa can do is put her heart in her voice, and in the tradition of the troubadour, remind anyone that we're all looking for the solid things in life like love, bravery, and friendship.