Rancho Alegre Radio puts unsung heroes of Tejano back into the limelight

Jose Gonzalez

The legacy of Tejano music is defined by two music styles — the Tejano that rose with Selena and then fizzled out, and then conjunto. While both styles have their differences, one Austin nonprofit tries to mediate and preserve all of Tejano in order to secure its place in history.

Founded in 2013, Rancho Alegre Radio is an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Tejano music. Originally an events DJ with so much love for the genre, founder Frank Cuellar has a catalog full of Tejano artists he revered throughout his life. Cuellar sought out and began to collect albums of various Tejano artists before they completely disappear.

“We hunt down a lot of the classic recordings because many of the originals don’t even exist anymore,” Cuellar said. “A lot of them didn’t get converted to cassette or CD, so many of the records we have in catalog are not in digital and can’t find them anywhere else.”

After surviving a severe stroke in 2010, Cuellar made it his mission to travel across Texas and interview Tejano artists still alive today. The enthusiasm and humility of Tejano legends such as Trio Los Aguilillas and Rene Joslin is what made the endeavor so fulfilling for Cuellar.

Despite spending their own cash and countless hours on the road, co-founder Piper LeMoine always accompanies Cuellar on his adventures. LeMoine said their efforts to chronicle Tejano music are significant because they’re the only ones evaluating and critiquing the genre as it stands.

“Tejano is a genre that exists without musical criticism or journalism,” LeMoine said. “You never see Tejano in a major publication like Rolling Stone because it doesn’t have the media to support it.”

Apart from its music catalog and collection of interviews, Radio Alegre is very active on social media. Cuellar said they receive a lot of heat from Tejano fans whenever they critique the genre for not breaking new ground, constantly booking venues to play covers of old Tejano artists.

“We’re probably enablers, but what I really want tell Tejano artists is, ‘Change your style, or your days are numbered,’” Cuellar said. “Unlike conjunto, there’s maybe 15 original Tejano acts left. After that … Where does it go?”

Despite the belief that Tejano is at a creative standstill, there are musicians like Jess Lopez, a former drummer to Little Joe, who feel the unique flavor of Tejano is coming back in a big way. Lopez said it wasn’t Selena’s death that killed Tejano’s inventive spark; it was big companies signing so many groups all at once.

“(Tejano groups) started to saturate Texas, going around the same spots over and over,” Lopez said. “It would be Tejano every weekend, and fans got tired of listening and stopped supporting.”

Lopez said the irony about Tejano is that if it’s going to thrive and grow, it needs to move beyond Texas. Fortunately, with the help of internet stations, the genre began to draw attention outside the state.

Cuellar has hosted a festival known as the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Festival thanks to the support from artists across Texas. After partnering up with Stubb’s BBQ this past year, the festival’s huge turnout made Cuellar feel optimistic about Tejano music’s drawing power in the future.

“It’s funny how this is the capital of music here in Austin, yet Tejano is so not represented,” Cuellar said. “But we are committed to making next year’s festival the biggest one yet.”