Santiago Jiménez Jr. has drawn worldwide accolades for sticking to the traditional conjunto sound pioneered by his father. He appears this Saturday at Taco Fest.
Beyond being a music legend, Santiago Jiménez Jr. is one of San Antonio’s chief cultural ambassadors. He’s a keeper of the conjunto flame, an irrepressible raconteur, a legendary beer drinker and a living reminder of our city's vibrant culture.
He's also full of contradictions — a devoted family man on his eighth marriage, a music traditionalist who's versed in all forms of electronic media and an unwitting DIY icon.
Born into a conjunto royal family, master accordionist Jiménez seized on the independent music ethos long before it became hip, putting out his own releases so he could make the music he wanted, trends be damned. For him, there was no choice.
“Music is my life,” he told the Current
during a recent interview at his West Side home. “I've been playing for 60 years already!”
Despite that lengthy career, Jiménez’s legacy continues to unfold. His new album Still Kickin’
will drop Friday, May 20 on Americana star Jesse Dayton’s Hardcharger label, an imprint of Blue Elan Records.
The conjunto maestro is also one of the headliners at this year’s Taco Fest Music y Más festival
, which takes place Saturday, May 14 at San Antonio’s Travis Park. The lineup also includes Grammy-winning Mexican outfit Kinky along with El Dusty, FEA, Piñata Protest, El Conjunto Nueva Ola and more.
A visit to Jiménez’s home studio reveals the staggering depth of his achievements. He’s won the National Endowment for the Arts’ Master Artist designation and received the Presidential Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. He's also got three Grammy nominations, university commendations and the keys to multiple cities.
As could be expected, the residence is also stacked full of CDs, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks and even releases in the discontinued Sony MiniDisc format. Santiago makes his own MiniDiscs, complete with mini artwork.
Ask the experts and they’ll tell you much of Jiménez’s recognition and legacy stems from his willingness to stay true to his roots. Some conjunto performers dabble with the latest styles and crazes to chase fame, while others mixed the form with outside influences.
But Jiménez has made a career of upholding the traditional style he learned from his late father, Don Santiago Jiménez Sr., one of the genre’s progenitors.
From Jimmy to Santiago
Over numerous cold beers in that West Side home, the younger Jiménez patiently recounted his life's musical journey.
Don Santiago Sr. was a leader in melding the ranchera songs of Northern Mexico with accordion and a danceable German polka beat, the essential combination behind the conjunto genre. His pioneering use of the toluloche
, or upright bass, can be heard on essential early recordings released through Decca, RCA, Mercury, Imperial, Clove and other labels.
One of the elder Jiménez’s recordings, “La Piedrera Polka,” was written in honor of the Brackenridge Park rock quarry that employed his family.
“My grandfather used to work there many years back,” Santiago Jiménez Jr. explained. “You know the skywalk? My grandfather used to walk up there and drop dynamite to explode. He made that, my grandfather. I grew up near there on Saltillo Street.”
The family later moved further west to Castroville Road, where his father's music would ring through the household. However, the patriarch didn't force music on his children, who also included Flaco Jiménez, a conjunto legend in his own right.
“My father wouldn't teach us,” Santiago Jiménez Jr. said. “He wanted us to teach him
that we could do it. And we did. Even Flaco did it himself.”
Early on, Jiménez went by the name Jimmy. He was later bestowed with the name Santiago through his accordion prowess. The “junior” appendage was meant to indicate a stylistic mastery akin to his father’s.
The younger Jiménez’s musical career kicked off at age 15 as he began performing parties of all kinds. He started recording at age 17. El Príncipe y el Rey del Acordeón
— “The Prince and the King of the Accordion” — a 1958 album recorded with Flaco for the Lira label was an early highlight.
“Who was the king? I don't know,” Jiménez said, laughing.
Like most musicians, Santiago worked odd jobs between gigs to make ends meet. That included time as a cook.
“But I was only burning beans,” Jiménez told the University of Texas’ Reporting Texas project in 2017. “The main thing in my life has been music.”
The early years also included stints in Houston and Fort Worth. Along the way, several marriages ended with a common deal breaker.
“You know what breaks up my marriages?” Jiménez asked. “My wives, they kept telling me I need to stop the music.”
After appearing in Chris Strachwitz's classic 1976 South Texas music documentary Chulas Fronteras
, Jiménez recorded albums for the filmmaker and music historian’s influential Arhoolie Records. Those included El Mero Mero
and Santiago Strikes Again
, the latter of which landed him his first Grammy nomination.
Along the way, he also recorded the infectious “El Corrido de Henry Cisneros,” honoring the political up-and-comer. Jiménez even penned the tune before Cisneros’ mayoral run and his appearance on the national political stage.
While releasing records, Jiménez gigged constantly. He played everywhere, but perhaps most notably at the legendary Lerma's Nite Club on Zarzamora St., one of the longest-running conjunto music venues in Central and South Texas.
Public Domain / Tom Pich
Jiménez photographed outside his home in 2000.
However, it wasn’t until after he’d been playing South Texas for years that Jiménez began bringing his old-school conjunto flavor to adoring audiences worldwide.
“During the ’70s, I did the whole map of the United States,” he said. “I flew though. Very rarely would I drive.”
Among his European travels was a memorable gig in the Soviet Union.
“It was arranged for me. See, I used to play at Tycoon Flats, and folks would come from all over the world. Met these guys from Holland. They arranged it,” he explained. “It was a bit scary. Pero
, at that time, I went to represent United States conjunto music as an ambassador.”
The Soviet venue was a cavernous steel factory: “No mics, no nada. It was crazy sounding. I didn't like it. They were not friendly.”
Jiménez found the communist country’s quota system particularly irksome.
“Let's say you had a Pepsi,” he said. “They would sell it to you but wouldn't give you another one. That's what I didn't like. I said, ‘Hey, can I have another beer? Another Pepsi?’ They said, ‘No. Just one.’ That’s it.”
Nonetheless, the hard traveling helped Jiménez establish his music on a global scale.
Eventually, he came back home to open the El Chief record shop, recording studio and office space. He inhabited the space, monikered after his "El Chief" nickname, from 1990 until 2000.
Still "El Chief"
In a way, that homecoming brings the story full circle. Jiménez's Still Kickin’
was recorded at Joe Trevino's Blue Cat Studios in Southtown, not far from El Chief’s one-time storefront.
Beyond its release on Dayton’s label, the album displays Jiménez’s lasting influence on a new generation of musicians.
San Antonio Americana impresario Garrett T. Capps produced the recording, which features Max Baca on bajo sexto and Noel Hernandez on tololoche, both from the Grammy-winning conjunto ambassadors Los Texmaniacs.
“We recorded all the instruments and the main vocal live in one room,” Capps said of the session. “There were overdubs for the vocal harmonies, which are Santiago. The band would cut each song in one take, then Santiago would stay in the room and do the harmonies. The whole album took about three hours to make.”
The stripped-down approach paid off. Still Kickin’
bursts with joy and immediacy. That vitality wasn’t lost on Americana star Dayton, who sings the album’s praises on his label’s website.
“[Jiménez is] the living link between Norteño and Tejano music that influenced rock ’n’ roll and country and modern Latin music,” Dayton wrote. “So, when Garrett said he had this raw and powerful old school-style recording he did with Santiago, I jumped at the chance to put it out. This project is a labor of love. Our No. 1 goal is to turn more people onto one of the last living legends from San Antonio!”
Jiménez takes his living-legend status in stride. He’s hopeful the new album will win him a fourth Grammy nomination, but either way, he’s going to stick to his real-deal approach to the music he grew up with.
After all, it brought him this far.
Taco Fest Music y Más, $20-$70, noon-11 p.m., Travis Park, 301 E. Travis St., tacocapitaloftheworld.com.
Get our top picks for the best events in San Antonio every Thursday morning. Sign up for our Events Newsletter.