When songwriter Tish Hinojosa penned the words to her local favorite song, “Taos to Tennessee,” she was in her 20s, living in Taos, working a seasonal job in Red River by day and playing her guitar by night at the Sagebrush Inn in Taos and the St. Bernard Lodge in Taos Ski Valley. She’s come a long way since then, but she somehow always makes her way back to this area.
Hinojosa is anticipating an emotional homecoming with old and new friends when she and her band perform a blend of folk, country, Latino and pop at the 13th season of the Shortgrass Music Festival Friday through Sunday (Sept. 15-17) in Cimarrón, New Mexico, approximately 55 miles east of Taos via U.S. 64.
Hinojosa’s performance is scheduled to take place Saturday (Sept. 16), 8 p.m., at the Cimarrón Maverick Club Rodeo Grounds. The Hwy 38 Houndogs from Red River will open for Hinojosa at 7 p.m., playing “an irresistible home brew of dance music they call Southwest Americana with a green chile twist.”
Hinojosa says her writing was influenced by the “light atmospheres and scents of the seasons in Taos ... the early autumn smells of fresh roasting green chiles, piñón fires and the burst of aspens changing colors and magical summer monsoon storms rolling across the sagebrush. I was moved to express my feelings with my writing because of this beauty surrounding me.”
She diligently honed her songwriting skills for a career that would eventually lead to collaborations with some of the heavyweights in American folk and country music: Joan Baez, Booker T. Jones, Flaco Jimenez, Pete Seeger and Dwight Yoakam. Hinojosa has played twice for the Clinton White House and recorded as an independent artist for A&M, Warner Brothers and Rounder Records. She has been a featured artist on “Austin City Limits” for PBS and NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” among others.
After her time in Taos, she moved to Austin, Texas, in the pursuit of the more illustrious career she’d dreamed of. There, she says she learned the work ethic and sound writing chops necessary to be the artist she is today. “Taos prepared me well,” she said.
The Shortgrass Music Festival is a celebration of Northeastern New Mexico’s high-altitude grasslands and the music that the biologically diverse area has inspired. The tenacity of plants like blue grama and buffalo grass to survive drought are an inspiration for music lovers to enjoy the immense natural beauty of the area. These plants serve as a testament to the longevity of the festival, which is now in its 13th year.
Landon Young is the brains and passion behind the event. Young is a former teacher, classical music lover and New Mexico resident. He was living in an isolated small New Mexico town near Cimarrón, where he said his town “was just a wide spot in the road with about 120 people.” Because of his isolation, he got the idea to start a festival with an eclectic mix of top artists performing over the course of a weekend near his home. He said the reason for the festival’s success is “a simple formula: We’re not trying to get bigger. We just want to provide a variety of top-rate live music for our community.”
The festival’s opening night is Friday (Sept. 15) at the Cimarrón Mercantile. There, you’ll find Spencer Branch performing at 7 p.m. This is a North Carolina trio of siblings — Martha and Kilby Spencer, plus Kilby Spencer’s partner, Kelley Breiding — who will perform music from their Appalachian mountain heritage. The trio plays a combination of vocal harmonies and classic fiddle with guitar and banjo instrumentation. Martha Spencer, the guitar player, singer and dancer of the group, says this will be the first time the band has played in New Mexico.
“We play feel-good music. Some people dance, others just listen – and some sing along. Every audience is different,” Martha Spencer said.
She is well known for her “flat foot dancing,” which is a traditional-style mountain dance – like clogging, but with a more freestyle form. Her brother is an award-winning fiddle player in both old-time and bluegrass styles, and his partner, Breiding, plays traditional clawhammer-style banjo. Spencer said the audience can anticipate “energetic dance music with a lot of sweet mountain vocal harmonies.”
In keeping with the festival creator’s vision of providing a genre of music for everyone, Young invited classical singer Andrew Lovato and pianist Nyle Matsuoka for the Sunday (Sept. 17), 4 p.m., performance rounding out the festival at the United Methodist Church of Cimarrón.
Lovato is a baritone opera singer now living and working in New York City. He has been asked to perform a 90-minute “art song.” Lovato explains, “Art song is separate from operatic performance in that it doesn’t involve multiple characters and a full orchestra. It is the singer and a piano, a very intimate performance.”
During the set, Lovato plans to sing work from Austrian composer Alban Berg. He said the listener can be “transported deep into the bluesy and sometimes terrifying heart of expressionism, think a Pablo Picasso or Gabriele Münter painting.” Then, he shifts gears and takes the audience on a pastoral journey through the works of German composer Robert Schumann and Austrian composer Franz Peter Schubert. The performance will cover a historic span of 150 years, three languages and four countries.
He will be accompanied by Matsuoka from the Austin Opera Company, where Lovato is also a performing artist.
Tickets are $10 for Spencer Branch, $20 for Hinojosa, $10 for Lovato and Matsuoka. Admission is free for youth under age 18 to all festival concerts. Tickets will be sold at the door before each performance or may be purchased ahead of time by calling (575) 376-2417. For more information and directions, visit shortgrassfestival.com.