Cris Plata's music travels a 'Migration Road'
March 20, 2015 7:45 am • By Jane Burns | Wisconsin State Journal
There can be various ways to tell a life story, and Cris Plata knows that firsthand.
The Wisconsin singer-songwriter already has his story in book form, and now that book has a companion. “Migration Road,” Plata’s third release and first since 2003, takes its cues from the music he heard in his youth as his family traveled the U.S. as migrant farm workers.
“So I had to go back and think of the first music that I’d heard in these places, music I’d never been exposed to in Texas,” said Plata, 60, who was born on a ranch near Poteet, Texas.
The CD serves as a companion piece to “Cris Plata: From Fields to Stage,” a youth-targeted book in the Wisconsin Historical Press’ Badger Biography Series. The book came out last year, and the CD is being released this week with a launch party Saturday at the High Noon Saloon.
“I think this is the best CD I’ve done, in terms of the material and the fidelity, and to have my wife at the helm producing it was a unique experience,” Plata said.
His wife, Ann, a veterinarian, also plays bass in the band. It was her first time as producer and she also wrote the CD’s opening song, “Goodbye Butterfly.” Many of the songs benefited from his wife’s tweaks, Plata said, in terms of instrumentation, content and tempo.
“I learned from Butch Vig because he had great ideas,” Plata said of the Smart Studio producer who worked on Plata’s first record, 1989’s “Spreading the Rumor.” “But Ann must have really been paying attention.”
The suggestion to make it a collection of the sounds that influenced him came from Ann, Plata said, and the result is a variety of styles as he retraces the road that brought him to Wisconsin. It’s where he remains, living with Ann on a farm near Columbus.
Plata’s family worked the cotton fields of Texas, tomato fields of Indiana and Florida and a variety of vegetable operations in Wisconsin. Music was their entertainment, both back home in Texas and while in their temporary homes far away.
Plata learned the guitar at a young age, picking up the music that he heard around him as a child, what he describes as Mexican roots music.
But his travels opened his ears to different kinds of music, styles he’d never heard before. That’s part of the music that makes up “Migration Road,” and the stories those songs tell.
The record’s second track, “House of the Master,” is about the workers in Florida who had to go to the fields on Sunday, without pay, because the boss said so and the workers had to keep their jobs. Migrant workers came to Florida from Jamaica, too, and Plata was introduced to their music.
“They were singing stuff I’d never heard before,” Plata said. “I wasn’t a musician then but I loved music and thought, ‘I really like what they’re doing.’”
He asked them what it was, and they told him it was “rocksteady” – a precursor to reggae music.
The next track on the record, “Sitting in the Shade,” takes its inspiration from another music that was unfamiliar to the young Plata – bluegrass. He first heard it when his family was in Indiana and again was intrigued.
“We’d turn on the radio and think, ‘What’s this strange sound?’” Plata said. “It was banjos and high and lonesome singing, mandolins, guitars and a big doghouse bass. I really liked it.”
The record also includes much of what has inspired Plata throughout his life – a love of animals and all of nature, as well as a sense of trying to do right in the world.
That comes through in one of the most beautiful songs on the record, “Moonlight Walkabout,” inspired by the times that Plata would just sit in the fields on a moon-lit night, listen to the sounds of the animals and play his guitar.
His heritage comes through strong in a song that is a tribute to his oldest brother, Juan, who taught him traditional music and also gave him his introduction to rock ’n’ roll.
“A couple years before he died, I went down to Texas and he introduced me to all his musical friends who were in a mariachi band, and that was a treat,” Plata said.
“I learned quite a bit because I’d never played with a full mariachi band before.”
Plata wanted to do a mariachi song, but he wanted to do it right and it was still unfamiliar territory to him. He used a combination of English and Spanish lyrics, and brought in Chris Wagoner of the Stellanovas on violin.
“I had to sweat it out. I wanted to do a tribute, but I wanted to do it justice,” Plata said. “I didn’t want it to be a hack job.
“I kind of had to study it a little bit.”
His “Migration Road” ends with the first song he ever recorded in 1989. He was about to record his first album in Madison, but while visiting family in San Antonio was inspired to write the song “Little Eagle” after reading about the death of an illegal immigrant in a locked truck.
Plata wanted the song to have the traditional sound of border music, and recorded it there to achieve that.
“My wife said, “Why don’t you put on the first song that you ever recorded? Then it’s like completing the journey,” he said in choosing songs for “Migration Road.”
The migration days are long over for Plata. He’ll spend time playing around the Midwest again this year, but also taking time to ride horses with his wife.
It’s a passion they both share, with a horse on the CD’s cover and two songs evoking horses.
“She did so much for this record,” Plata said. “We’re going to spend some time doing what she wants to do.”
Photo by John Connell taken at High Noon Saloon, Madison, WI
The Isthmus Daily Page: CD Review: Cris Plata
August 7, 2003
Life Is Hard
Cris Plata is the kind of singer-songwriter who builds on his creative successes, refining the things that have worked on past recordings and tossing aside those that haven't. As a consequence, his Tex-Mex dance tunes, old-timey ballads and country-folk material bristle with more melodic hooks each time out, and his lyrics rarely stray from the pared-down poetry of a well-turned pop song.
On Life Is Hard, Plata doesn't do much that would surprise his old fans (the deliberately dissonant accordion figures that punch up "El Tejano" being a major exception), but he doesn't have to. Whether Plata's singing about the tough times his father had to endure in the wistful "My Old Man" or guiding his small, well-rehearsed band through the lilting Texas swing of the title cut, his delivery is always smooth, his grasp of each note complete. Lots of local songwriters can pen a catchy chorus and a workable bridge; Plata goes a step further and fashions complete tunes that complement his warm, often melancholy tenor voice.
These days Plata has become adept at undercutting lilting country-pop progressions with probing, serious-minded lyrics. Two of the very best tracks here, "Big Lonesome" and "Welcome to Jerusalem," trot along to sprightly rhythms and ring with guitar, pedal steel and mandolin filigree even as they examine the fateful nature of personal dreams. Rodney Crowell took a similar approach on his captivating musical memoir The Houston Kid, and Plata's mix of sweet sounds and sobering ideas works nearly as well.
The CD was recorded at a couple of different studios, but you can hardly tell from the straightforward production, which is supportive throughout. The flow through to the end of the disc suffers a little from the inclusion of Ann Plata's good-natured but rather jarring novelty tune "I Wanna Be a Lesbian." But things get back on track with the final cut, "Flag Day," a moving ode to forgotten soldiers that Cris sings in the first person.
All in all, a strong effort that merges Plata's Mexican American roots and attraction to Lone Star country-folk extremely well.Reviewed by Tom Laskin
Picture from Madison's Fiesta Hispana
Wisconsin State Journal, RHYTHM
Thursday, July 31, 2003
Cris Plata, "Life Is Hard," Ponytrax
Cris Plata has never met a pigeonhole he wanted to fill. The Texas-born singer-songwriter soaked up musical genres from both sides of the border and doesn't feel compelled to choose country music over Tejano music, or vice versa.
Plus, as he proves on his latest album, "Life Is Hard," he and his band Extra Hot (including wife Ann Plata) are so adept at both that there's no need to choose. The album opens with the traditional country twang of "Long Hard Ride," then slides into the more contemporary country-rock feel of "Everything You Got.
The autobiographical "My Old Man" has a painful ring of truth to it ("My old man had callused hands/but he has a gentle touch") and its chorus gives the album its title. Plata does a deft job balancing the hard realities of his father's life with his admiration for how he never gave up. Tom Dehlinger, whose pedal steel guitar buoys "Long Hard Ride," contributes a dobro solo that adds a lot of texture to "My Old Man.
For fans of Tejano music, Plata includes the enjoyable "El Tejano" and the lovely ballad "Tengo Una Herida." Ann Plata takes a turn behind the microphone for "I Wanna Be a Lesbian," a song that isn't quite as funny as it could be. On the other hand, it should induce Cris to help with the dishes more often. There's a relaxed confidence that runs through all nine songs and connects them together. Life may be hard, but making good music comes easy to Plata.
Plata makes Monona Terrace Extra Hot
Photos and article by Jonathan Gramling for the Madison Times
During one of the hottest summers Madison has experienced in recent years, Cris Plata and Extra Hot made the Rooftop of Monona Terrace sizzle and shake with its brand of Tex Mex music. The second installment of Dane Dances 2002 drew a crowd of several thousand dancers and onlookers who reveled in the late afternoon sun on August 2. The evening started warming up with the 1960's repertoire of Devine Funk. DJ Chill then turned up the heat as the crowd joined in for some line dancing. Everyone was in the mood.
The heat hit high as dusk began to fall when Cris Plata and Extra Hot took the stage. Plata's broad repertoire appealed to the diverse crowd as thousands took to the dance floor. Plata was joined by his wife, Ann Plata, Ernie Conner, and special guest drummer Clyde Stubblefield. Extra Hot's music spanned the Americas, capturing the feel and emotion of both sides of the border. The presence of Woody Guthrie could be felt as Plata played to the heart of America and every day people. By nightfall, everyone could sing of Madison "This land was made for you and me.
Plata's music a mix of musical cultures
By Rob Thomas
Look on the map, and Texas and Wisconsin are a long way apart. When he was young, Cris Plata's family would make the long trek from their South Texas home to Columbus, Wis., every year to spend the season as migrant workers.
But musically, the states are closer together than you might think. The German and Polish settlers who brought polka music to Wisconsin also colonized South Texas, which is why many Tex-Mex bands have accordion players.
Those kinds of musical connections seem to delight Plata – the way cultures are so different and yet somehow not so different.
Anyone who has attended a show by Plata and his band, Extra Hot – and they've been favorites in Madison for years – can attest that Plata loves all kinds of music. His style of music is a distinctive strain of Tex-Mex, mixing the progressive country music of Texas singer-songwriters like Jerry Jeff Walker with the Mexican roots music of the region, including varieties called "cojunto," "ranchero" and "norteno.
Norteno music is essentially the music of northern Mexico, a basic and melodic strain of folk music, while ranchero music is best described as Mexican country music.
Cojunto music developed in South Texas as a hybrid of the Mexican music of the region and the European influences brought by settlers, including the accordion.
It's pretty hopping when the Germans play it, but in Texas it's kind of hot during the summer," Plata says. "So what you wind up doing is slowing it down a little bit. You shuffle your feet on the floor so it's not quite as strenuous on you, so you can dance all night long.
When Plata was just 6 years old, his parents would invite their friends from the migrant farms over, and they would play those songs late into the night. The young Plata initially saw those old tunes as nothing more than impediments to a good night's sleep.
They'd come over to the house and be playing until three or four in the morning, and I'd be in the next room, thinking 'God, I wish they'd cut that out, I want to get some sleep,' " Plata says. "And it was all these old songs. To me, I wanted to hear the Beatles and stuff like that.
Eventually, his father taught him how to play the guitar in the Mexican style and also taught him a few riffs from his favorite non-Mexican performer, Johnny Cash. When Plata asked to learn rock or blues licks, his father told him he had to learn those on his own.
Although they returned home to South Texas every year, the family frequently had to move to where the work was, and Plata soaked up the music of every region he visited. A season spent on Florida's southern tip allowed him to hear the sounds of Jamaican music on his radio, while a stint in Indiana opened his ears to folk and bluegrass music.
We traveled a lot through the United States as migrant workers, and I got to listen to a lot of music that normally in South Texas I would not have a chance to hear," Plata says. "I think that's where my love of all kinds of music had the seed. As I got older, I started having more of an appreciation for my dad's style of music and old country music. It was quite an education without even knowing it.
Of all the places Plata's family traveled to, his father loved Wisconsin best. He loved the food and the friendliness of the people, often exclaiming that there was a tavern on every corner in the state, even in the middle of nowhere. From 1966 through 1977, the family would go back and forth between Texas and Wisconsin every year.
Plata's parents gave him the option of going to school or working with the family, and he chose school. In some ways, he says, it was tough being the only Mexican-American in a class.
The Anglo kids were really nice. I don't think I could even count on one hand the number of times I had someone discriminate against me because I was Chicano. But it's tough to stand out and be the only kid of your race who goes to school. You're dressed differently, and you're bringing different kinds of food to school for lunch.
One of the things that helped Plata was his magpie-like ability to imitate the accents and dialects of others, so he could speak English without even a trace of a Mexican accent.
Plata made Wisconsin his permanent home in 1977 when he married his wife, Ann, and moved up to her family's farm near Columbus. Even though he had spent many summers in the state, it was his first taste of a real Wisconsin winter.
Being from Texas, usually you get snow once every 10 years, and it's a half-inch," he says. "I wanted to see snow. I'd watch the weather report, and they said it would snow at midnight, so I'd set my alarm to get up and see it. And that year, through the whole winter it was really dry. I was like 'Why are you guys always complaining about the cold and the snow?'
But Ann got into veterinary school the next fall, and we moved up to the Twin Cities," Plata says, and then laughs. "And it started to snow in October and didn't quit until mid-April.
When Plata formed Extra Hot, it was hard to find musicians in Wisconsin who had played Tex-Mex music. Drummer Clyde Stubblefield played on the band's first album, and Plata's wife played bass guitar and sang backing vocals.
The current lineup now includes D. "Ernie" Conner on guitars and Scott Young on drums, as well as Ann Plata on bass.
Extra Hot now has three albums to its credit, and after a busy summer of touring, Plata is preparing to go into the studio in December to record the fourth.
Ann Plata will serve as producer on this record for the first time. Plata says she has a sharp ear for picking out what a song does and doesn't need.
With me I could just pile on stuff and think this sounds really great," Plata says. "She's like, 'Oh, that's a little too much. Let's pull this out and this out.' And hey, that does sound a whole lot better, it's not quite as cluttered.
Plata seems to have rededicated his energies this year toward his music. He recently quit a job in middle management that was taking up a lot of his time, instead taking a job whose regular hours are more conducive to being a full-time musician.
He says the joy he gets from music isn't from being on stage with hundreds of people looking at him, and it certainly isn't his dream to become rich and famous. Rather, he's in it to write and perform his own songs for people.
I know some talented musicians who are virtuosos, and nobody's ever going to hear of them," Plata says. "They don't do it for the recognition. They do it because they love the music. So when I hear them say that, it makes me feel a little bit better. This isn't like when we were younger and thought we were going to be on the pop charts.
That has slowly faded away, like the shine on a new car," Plata chuckles. "It's gotten a little dull. Finally you just want it to start and get you somewhere. You don't care how it looks.
From Rhythm, Thursday, October 18, 2001.
Cris Plata Trio at the Stoughton Opera House: