Vicente Fernández: King of the Mexican Singing Cowboys
At age 69, the King of the Mexican Singing Cowboys continues to wow crowds, but he lives for working out his horses back home at the ranch.
The music magazines call him the Frank Sinatra of Mexico. But if you ask Vicente Fernández, he'll tell you he's just a hardworking man.
Courtesy Sony BMG
With a career spanning more than 40 years, he's definitely one hard-riding, hard-drinking entertainer with a fiery stage presence and an almost-operatic voice that can carry to a crowd of thousands without the use of a microphone. He's also the consummate charro — the embodiment of the Mexican cowboy tradition — with roots in the central state of Jalisco [see "The Mexican Charro" C&I, January 2006, page 106]. He loves — and lives — the cowboy songs he sings. No wonder that the label "the world's greatest ranchera singer" sticks.
With more than 20 feature films and nearly 80 albums to his credit, and 50 million CDs sold, El Rey, as he's called, proved he de-serves the title when his 2007 release, Para Siempre [For Always], became the best-selling Latin record in the U.S. market in its first six months on the charts. On it, the rags-to-riches Fernández performs signature songs of longing and hard luck, love and jealousy, and the lure of the open road.
His album covers portray a six-gun-toting Mexican cowboy of the Old West merged with a Latin pop star of the 21st century, but Fernández is more than just a colorful stage presence. Comparisons to Elvis and Sinatra are inevitable both for the mania and devotion of Fernández fans and for the energy and sincerity of emotion that power his live performances and recordings. Regularly playing to packed crowds, he can sell out weeklong engagements in Los Angeles in a heartbeat. Make it to any of those U.S. concerts and you'll see cowboys tossing hats (and cowgirls throwing unmentionables onstage), clamoring for one more song.
"As long as you keep applauding," he is famous for saying, "I'll keep singing." They do, and he does, often paying thousands of dollars in contractual fines for his union overtime. After a standard three- or four-hour marathon performance fueled by cognac and cigarettes — the stuff of living legend, which is precisely how he's regarded across Latin America — the backstage Fernández is decidedly down-to-earth. Decked out in traditional charro duds, Don Vicente (or "Chente" as his fans affectionately call him) is relaxed and soft-spoken.
More than anything, Fernández takes pride in raising horses; miniature breeds are his favorites. His ruddy complexion and sandy grip betray his love of living the ranching life. His ranch outside Guadalajara, Los Tres Potrillos (The Three Colts, named for his three sons), is home to a large equestrian center, the Centro de Espectáculos Vicente Fernández Gomez. In 2005, the center hosted the 59th annual Charro National Congress and World Championship. With an 11,000-seat stadium and all the trappings of a modern equestrian facility, Los Tres Potrillos also holds music events, rodeos, and charreadas throughout the year. And it's the place Fernández can ride his herd or just enjoy a day away from his touring schedule.
Notable, too, for its massive stables, two estate houses, a lake, and its own church, Los Tres Potrillos is also a kind of Santa's Village at Christmas time, when Fernández hosts thousands of children from the surrounding countryside and hands out presents.
We caught up with Vicente Fernández backstage at a concert in Dallas to talk about living on his ranch, raising horses, and playing Vegas.
Cowboys & Indians: How old were you when you first started riding?
Vicente Fernández: Well, it was a while before I could ride my own horses [laughs]. I was 31 before I could afford to buy my own horses, although I started riding when I was just a kid in my hometown. I would ride, but they weren't mine. These days it costs more to take care of my horses than if I had 20 lovers.
C&I: How many horses do you keep right now?
Fernández: About 400.
C&I: Are they all miniature horses?
Fernández: No, no. Only about a quarter of them are miniature horses — from the best lines.
C&I: What else do you raise on your ranch?
Fernández: I keep a herd of cattle — longhorns. I've got a special charrería team that my sons and I use. I still charreo when I have the time.
C&I: What are your events?
Fernández: Cala [similar to cutting] and cola [an event in which the rider speeds alongside a bull, grabbing and twisting the bull's tail to force it to the ground). Those are the two releases I do.
C&I: Before you bought it, what was the ranch like?
Fernández: [laughing] When I first bought the ranch it was a dump. There was a stable, but very old and run-down. The corrals were falling apart. There wasn't anything there. You'd pick up a rock and find 20 scorpions. I thought it might make a good ranch, though, so I bought 15 hectares [about 37 acres] at first. Later on, I kept buying and buying and buying. I've got other haciendas, but the big one is Los Tres Potrillos. It's named for my three sons.
C&I: Describe the land if you would.
Fernández: Well, my land is flat and rocky. We cultivate it, too. I seed a good bit of it in feed for the horses and some of it in corn for the cattle and other livestock.
C&I: What's your routine when you go to the ranch?
Fernández: Actually I train for the charrería. I get up at sunrise every day. Right now, the sun's up early, so I'm working the horses by 7 a.m. On a typical day I'll exercise the horses, maybe go ride and check cattle, or have a look at the mares. I enjoy it. I particularly like working out the horses. I work them hard — I sweat them so they don't turn into fatsos.
C&I: It sounds like you're working more than you're relaxing.
Fernández: What happens is that I end up working, one way or another. For example, I gave concerts Sunday and Monday in Atlanta and Chicago. I traveled Monday night, and Tuesday I recorded a video for my new single. ... Sometimes I'll start at 5 a.m. and not be finished until 2 in the morning. One way or another, I'm always busy.
C&I: There's a rumor you're thinking of starting a place in Las Vegas — a mariachi-themed casino called Guadalajara, Guadalajara ...
Fernández: It's just a rumor — I've heard it before. I don't like gambling. I go to Las Vegas to sing, but I never bet a single penny. I've got some racehorses and some fighting roosters, so people seem to think I'm a wagering man. I'm not a gambler.
C&I: Some U.S. newspapers have taken to calling you "the Sinatra of Mexico." What do you think of the comparison?
Fernández: Well, for me it's an honor to be put in the same company. But I get compared to lots of people. If you're asking me who's the best — Frank Sinatra or Vicente Fernández — I can't tell you I'm better. I just happen to be more alive.
Fernández's 2007 CD, Para Siempre, came on the heels of the 2006 treasure-trove The Living Legend (SonyBMG). An elegant boxed set with full liner notes in English and Spanish, it contains three discs of Fernández's favorite performances — not necessarily his greatest hits, but songs selected by El Rey himself as representative of his career. His 2008 Primera Fila, is yet another testament to a voice and spirit that show no signs of being diminished by the years.
Here are 12 tunes we love by the man who's a Mexican national treasure.
• Volver, Volver His signature song, the showstopping fan favorite.
• El Rey It takes more than a castle to make a king, especially if your wife locks you out of the house.
• Palabra de Rey Loyalty, even in betrayal, is a recurring theme in his lyrics.
• La Tragedia del Vaquero The title track to his 2006 album is a Western tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
• El Jaliciese A mariachi standard, the earnest and proud anthem of the state of Jalisco.
• La Muerte de un Gallero We love the storytelling tradition in mariachi music, and this one about the death of a rooster handler is a perfect example.
• Las Botas de Charro When it comes to heartbreak, cowboys never learn, do they?
• Con una Copa de Vino The Latin lover's passion is legendary, but drinking poisoned wine rather than losing your woman?
• La Derrota The ultimate break-up song.
• Estos Celos From 2007's Para Siempre, it's love and jealousy at first sight.
• La Misma If you've ever gotten drunk and played the same song on the jukebox 10 times in a row, this one is for you.
• A mi Manera Fernández's take on "My Way" is decidedly smoother than Sinatra's but just as heartfelt.
Search for "Vicente Fernandez" on iTunes to download these and other tracks.