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Justin Trevino: the travelin' singin' man

By Joel Bernstein, May 2001

Nashville isn't the only place where there's a clash between old sounds and new. It's happening in Texas too. While Texas has a thriving music scene - led by the likes of Charlie Robison, Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green - threatening to spread to a wider audience, that scene has no room for Justin Trevino, a man whom many people consider the state's finest young singer.

Trevino's music, based on the shuffle sounds so popular in the '50's and '60's, it is out of fashion with the young even in Texas.

"We play all over Texas," the 25-year-old Trevino says from his Austin home. "Texas is the only place I know where this kind of stuff still exists. But even here, it's not as predominant. It's fading from popularity."

What really upsets Trevino is that "they started a Texas chart, but they excluded traditional country. How can you tell me that Johnny Bush and Bob Wills are not Texas music? It's a very narrow thing. It comes out the way they want it to come out."

Trevino's recently released third album, "Travelin' Singin' Man," is his first with national distribution. It also comes only a year after his second release. "I think it's the best one yet. The production is better, and I'm singing better. I'm my own worst critic. I figure out what it is that bothers me about the old records and try to rectify it. I think I sang better on each album. I intend to sing even better on the next one. It's a never-ending quest to try to improve. Some of the subtleties I work on are things a lot of people wouldn't notice."

The haste of this project did entail some sacrifices, however. Due to being on a new label (Lone Star), "we had to get something out in such a hurry that I didn't have a chance to record any original material. We had songs we knew and had to go in with those. I've been real fortunate to record with some of my heroes on previous albums. I wanted Leona Williams again, but we ran out of time to get her down from Oklahoma."

Trevino did get to record another duet with his mentor and employer Johnny Bush, one of the legends of Texas music. "I play bass for Johnny most of the time. I open the show, and he features me." When Bush is not working, Trevino often uses his bandmates for his own gigs.

How did such a young man become a huge fan of such old music?

"There was never a time when music wasn't a part of my life. My earliest memories are of singing along at three or four years old. I heard all the Opry stars - I was named after Justin Tubb. My dad also loved Johnny Cash. I guess when I was 10 or 11 years old, I really fell in love with the country shuffle. I'd already been exposed. There was a time when the charts were dominated by shuffles. Most of the guys we attribute that sound to were from Texas, but it's not strictly a Texas thing. There was a time when this was the popular music."

Trevino, sightless since birth, feels that the shuffle has been unwisely cast aside. "I do get frustrated. I don't see anybody, even the guys considered traditional, carrying on that Texas shuffle tradition. That shuffle beat is a danceable beat. Alan Jackson had a big hit with 'Pop A Top'." Mentioning other successes by artists such as The Dixie Chicks and Vince Gill, Trevino says "I'll never understand" why so few are being recorded. While Trevino would like to be known for writing his own songs, that is the extent of his ambition towards what some call artistic growth. "I guess you could call me a preservationist. I don't think (the sound) needs to be changed or tampered with. When I write a song I strive to make it sound like it was one of Harlan Howard's or Justin Tubb's. You just have to understand how much I love this stuff. It's as much a style, in and of itself, as Western Swing. Ray Benson (Asleep At The Wheel) makes it a point to carry on that tradition. This genre has never been given a proper name - I call it Texas dancehall music - but it's as much a style as western swing or bluegrass."

Trevino isn't sure what the future holds. "Clubs that support the old music are fewer in number than they once were. A lot of the old dancehalls are trying to bring in the kids. But you'd be surprised at the places we play that have people from 8 to 80. One of the neatest things is when a little kid comes up and asks for 'Fraulein.' Then you know this music is going to be around a long while."