Music

Carin León Made Country Music History at Stagecoach. He’s Just Getting Started

Carin León feels like he’s been hallucinating the last three weekends.

He’s running on just a few hours of sleep and the high of making history at Stagecoach, where he became the first música mexicana singer to perform at the country festival. Onstage, León looked like any other country act, sporting a sleeveless button-up shirt and a matching cowboy hat. But instead, he performed his rootsy, romantic rolas, backed by a full banda: tubas, accordion, and all. 

León sees his efforts to blend country music with música mexicana as a poker match. “Playing at Stagecoach was one of the most important cards for our genre,” he told Rolling Stone the day before his performance.

During his set on the Palomino stage last Friday, the musician performed his cumbia-leaning “Alch Si,” the cantina-ready tearjerker “Corazon de Oro,” and zapateado “La Boda Del Huitlacoche.” He made space for a cover of one of his biggest country inspirations, Johnny Cash, by diving into a rendition of “Man in Black,” and gave the crowd a taste of his affinity for crossovers with his Spanglish country-pop single, “It Was Always You.”

It’s part of a longer arc: Last year, he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry. Now, he’s focused on continuing to raise the Mexican flag in spaces that have not typically welcomed music in Spanish. But the blend of música mexicana and country was inevitable, León thinks. And it was the perfect time for two of the two fastest-growing genres in the United States to merge. “It was nearly impossible for this moment not to come,” he says. “It was almost intuitive, especially with how similar these genres are. The music on both sides is almost primal, without pretension.”

The crossover is deep-rooted — and León acknowledging it in a big way. At Stagecoach, he brought out Ana Bárbara for a duet rendition of 2005’s “Lo Busqué,” which León has credited as one of the first música mexicana songs to show its connection to country music.

“For Carín, ‘Lo Busqué’ was special to his own musical journey. That was one of the first tracks to highlight the duality of Mexican and country music, so knowing that that’s why he invited me to perform at Stagecoach meant the world,” Bárbara tells Rolling Stone. “It was such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Backstage at the festival, León roamed around different sets, and even snapped a photo with a fellow industry-shaker, Jelly Roll, all while rocking a Chalino Sanchez t-shirt. Repping Mexico and its vast music scene is always the first thing on his mind.

León caught up with Rolling Stone about his Stagecoach and Coachella performances and what he thinks about the future of Mexican and country music.

Jesus Fernando/LABULLA PR Agency

Coachella and Stagecoach back to back. What is that like for you?
Apart from representing múscia mexicana, it was important for me personally. I never imagined that I’d ever be at something like Stagecoach as an audience member, and let alone as an artist. It felt really good to represent both Hermosillo and Mexican music. It’s something that I have trouble digesting but I’m super happy about it.

You’ve been working on this for years though.
When you’re sitting doing an interview, you realize how incredible it is. Everything has just happened so quickly and beautifully and we’re enjoying it so it’s hard to even recognize and process that it’s happening. To listen to people say Carin Leon in the same sentence as Grand Ole Opry was huge for me and for our genre, especially because country music is so purist. The genre seldom likes collaborations with other genres so to bring Mexican music to country is so important to me and it feels like a big responsibility I carry with lots of pride.

You have a song, “The One,” with Kane Brown, who’s represented Black listeners of country.
He’s a great, talented person and a good friend. He really helped break those barriers and get rid of those quote-unquote rules that existed for what country music meant. Kane is such a fundamental part of the expansion of country in general. Music is music and it doesn’t have races, or divisions. It’s just music. There’s so much overlap and they have so much to represent together.

You mention country music being closed off. What’s your experience been entering this space?
It’s interesting and quite fun. Before I started dabbling with country music, I was so tired of trying to find a hit. Then, Carin León was born of the renaissance of my music and how I wanted to express it. I was so tired and sad of making the music I needed to make to fit in. When I started making the music I really liked, it was my own heart that led me here. Thank God that people have accepted this movement and it makes me so passionate. I wanted to reinvent my music and doing so with these elements of American folklore.

Jesus Fernando/LABULLA PR Agency

Who are your favorite country artists?
My favorite is Kenny Rogers. He’s one of the people who helped change the genre. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith. My favorite band is Eagles, which isn’t country but has hints of bluegrass. There are so many artists who’ve helped influence me over the years.

You performed “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton at Coachella.
We didn’t have the song on the setlist, but people started asking for it. I sometimes cover this song at my shows and it went viral a few days ago so a lot of people wanted me to play it. The audience is the one in charge so we added it to our setlist.

You also pay tribute to Selena with your performance. Why is it so important to pay tribute to her?
Selena is a source of great pride for all Mexicans, especially in the United States. She has such a large cultural significance. Our genre is going through such a massive moment and I think people are distracted by getting hits, but I’ve always been conscious of the roots and enriching the genre. It’s about taking the important parts of our culture and honor them, like Selena.

You’re the king of crossovers. You’ve done songs with Leon Bridges, Camilo, and Kane Brown. What’s it like for you to bring other folks into the Mexican music space?
It’s so easy to do this, simply because it’s fun. Even making mistakes, you enjoy it. There are genres that I’ve been wanting to dabble with and it’s been a beautiful journey of trying new sounds. As a musician, it’s super fun and that’s the key to it. We’re going to keep doing that, especially ones you might not expect.

Would you say the future of Mexican music is in country?
Not necessarily. I think everything has its moments. Sometimes it can be good hits. It happened with us where we had a lot of big songs, and then we launched “Primera Cita,” which had nothing to do with regional Mexican or country music. It was soul. At the end of the day, people just like good music. I love what’s happening with Mexican music. I think there are going to be more crossovers into country. The only future I see is that Mexican music is going to become a lot grander than it already is.

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After Stagecoach, you have your tour. You said something about “from Hermosillo to Paris.” What are you planning with this tour?
The album and tour will have the same name, Boca Chueca. It’s about sharing a different side of myself. Very focused on the music and the concept and all those details. I want to bring the music to an alternative crowd, but also playing our original albums with lots of love. We’re going to rest and be ready to agarrar el toro por los cuernos (grab the bull by the horns).

Tell me about the album.
That one is coming out this month. We’re dropping it in two parts because it’s a long one, as  I like. There are so many great songs that were saved from over the years because we hadn’t found the right place for them in our genre, but I think it’s a very revelatory moment for my music. The album will have a lot of romantic tracks, lots of exciting lyrics, some rock, some flamenco. There are a lot of mixes that I think work well together. It all tells a beautiful story.

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