More than three decades after he picked up a guitar for the first time at age seven, Justin Trevino continues to live up to his name - not only his reputation for musical excellence, but also his first name, chosen by his father. Trevino's dad, Joaquin, was a hardcore country music fan. He named his son after his favorite songwriter and singer, Justin Tubb.
Perhaps his name alone sealed his fate that day in 1973 when he entered the world via Brownsville, Texas. But Justin also had plenty of "nature" and "nurture" on his side. Besides being born with the capacity for singing and songwriting, Justin received loving nurture from his parents. Even as a young boy, Justin was immersed in country music. His folks didn't believe in hiring babysitters, so when they went to the honky tonks, they had Justin in tow.
"My earliest memory of being in the beer joints is probably five years old. I think I was going into them before that". Trevino, blind since birth, says no one really worried about such a young boy being in a bar. "In my case, it probably had as much to do with not being able to see. When I was in those places, I was with my dad at all times. I wasn't up running around. I was the kind to stay put, drink my soda water and talk to whoever wanted to talk - especially if they wanted to talk about country music. The old-timers were kind of amazed that a kid was so interested in traditional Texas country music and Western Swing". Justin could hardly be otherwise. He was steeped in the music at home from all of his family members.
"My dad was a big collector of Country and Western Swing albums. He had several hundred by the time I was born. Some of my earliest - and best - memories are of sitting around home while he played those records for me. And, even though he didn't really have a voice for singing, Dad's idea of a lullaby was to sing me a country song. We never went anywhere without country music, either. The glove box in our car was always stuffed full of his favorites 8 track tapes.
"You know how young kids repeat what they hear, even before they're old enough to understand the words they're saying? Well, my mom told me about an incident I was too young to remember that just goes to show how much of an impression my dad's passion for country music had already made on me. When I was three years old, Mom took me to the grocery store. As I was sitting in the cart waiting for her to check out, I started singing the words of an old Johnny Cash song, 'Delia's Gone.' So, there I am, barely more than a toddler, belting out 'Delia, oh, Delia, Delia all my life...If I hadn't have shot poor Delia, I'd have had her for my wife...Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone...First time I shot her, I shot her in the side...' Well, by the time I got around to shooting poor Delia for the second time, the clerk was in shock. She turned to my mom and said, 'Ma'am, does he not know any nursery rhymes?'"
It wasn't long, though, before the young Trevino began to fully understand and appreciate country music on his own. By age 5 or 6, he'd already begun pestering his parents to buy him a guitar. When he was 7, they honored his request and arranged for him to take lessons. After three years of guitar lessons, he'd become so proficient that he could learn and play new music "by ear." Singing began as a by-product. As Justin learned and played guitar chords, singing along was simply a way for him to give those chords a purpose. Although he is well respected today as a bass guitarist, most of Justin's followers are drawn to his singing - which he has developed without a single vocal lesson.
Trevino grew up while artists like Curtis Potter, Darrell McCall and Justin Tubb were still commonly heard on the air, and he shared their appreciation for the country shuffle. His favorite - the big one - was Texas legend Johnny Bush.
Justin recalled, "The first time I heard Johnny sing, I said to myself, 'My God, there's a singer for ya. When I was 10, I set out to collect all of his records and they were all out of print. It took me a few years, but I finally got them."
By the time he was 13, Trevino had formed his own band, Sunset Country. The group played honky tonks in and around Austin, most notably a monthly gig at Henry's Bar & Grill in North Austin.
Four years later, he landed the gig he wanted most: leading the Sunday afternoon jam session at Harry Weiss' Red Eye Saloon, which was inside San Antonio's Eisenhauer Road Flea Market. He knew that his idol, Johnny Bush, sometimes came to sit in. One day after Weiss heard Trevino singing "Whiskey River," Bush's signature song, he remarked how much the young man sounded like Bush and promised to introduce the two of them. Weiss made good on that promise a couple of weeks later.
"I'm up there singing that afternoon and Johnny gets up on the stage and announces, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a little under the weather. I've got a real bad cold, I'm kinda hoarse, and I can't sing. I've been told that this young man knows all my songs. What I'm gonna do is sit here and play lead guitar, and he's gonna sing my songs. So you can look at me and listen to him.'"
Trevino started with "Undo the Right." By the time he finished 45 minutes later, he and Johnny were close friends. These days, Johnny considers Justin to be like a son, and he is quick to tell people, "Justin was my biggest fan until I heard him sing. Then I became his!"
In the early 90s, while continuing to perform with his own band, Justin also played bass for Don Walser, Cornell Hurd and, later, also with Darrell McCall. In 1994, while still continuing to do shows on his own and with the other bands, Justin began a nine-year run as one of the famous "Bandoleros" (Johnny Bush's band). He played bass and sang harmony throughout those nine years; but nearly from the beginning, he would also opened the shows with 45 minutes as lead vocalist before Johnny came on stage.
In Texas country music circles, it's a huge source of pride for musicians to be able to say they've been a Bandolero. They all have their reasons. For Justin, though, it wasn't just about the thrill of playing with a Texas legend who was also his idol, mentor and good friend.
"Johnny was always so good to the band, but what I liked most was being the 'weak link' on stage. They were all such incredible musicians - the best, bar none, of those doing real country music at the time. They took their craft seriously but were always willing to share knowledge and give feedback. I constantly learned and grew as a musician from them. You have no idea how much of an education it was!"
Johnny Bush wasn't Justin's only musical benefactor. Although he sometimes sat in on bass for Don Walser, Trevino was never an official member of Don's band. Nonetheless, Walser took Trevino under his wing. He prompted Justin to record a demo so he could pitch it to his new label. Walser's band helped with the recording. Walser's record label didn't pick up Trevino's recordings, but Justin released the album himself two years later, in 1998. The title track from that album, "Texas Honky Tonk," is still considered by many to be his signature song...and it is certainly one of the most requested at Justin's performances. And since releasing Texas Honky Tonk in 1998, Justin has recorded and produced 13 more albums.
As if singing, songwriting and playing bass weren't enough to feed Justin's all-consuming passion for true country music and Western Swing, in 1997, he began recording in his home studio in Martindale, Texas. After having two of his own albums under his belt, he began recording and producing for other artists who were interested in making traditional country records. It wasn't long before his friend, Tracy Pitcox, approached Justin about engineering and producing albums for Pitcox's newly formed record label, Heart of Texas Records. Although Tracy and the artists on his label are still chief clients for Justin, he also engineers and produces albums for quality traditional country musicians who are independent or on other labels. Justin runs his recording and production business from a building constructed on the Heart of Texas Music Association campus in Brady, Texas. Brady has been home to Justin and Sissy (Elizabeth), his wife, since 2008.
HEROES AND FRIENDS
Although Justin has been honored with numerous high-profile appearances and awards as producer and vocalist, he says there are two things much more rewarding to him in his career nowadays.
First, it's the ongoing opportunity to be on stage with his heroes and friends.
"Even though I enjoy singing and doing shows with my own band, I love the opportunities I have, especially through Heart of Texas, to get on stage with talents like Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and Tony Booth. They were my heroes when I began my career and they are great friends today.
"Similarly, it was a special joy to be able to help Amber Digby when she was first starting out. Now I get to experience in a unique way how she has matured as a singer and polished her performance and band. It's a great feeling to have such a wonderful friendship that began with our shared passion for real country music, but it's even more of a treat to experience and share in Amber's accomplishments there on stage as her duet partner.
"It's hard to explain, but another reason I like being on stage as the "band" rather than "front man" is because it gives me a chance to do the harmony vocals. It's a different kind of challenge to match a lead singer's cadence, articulation, pitch and delivery style. Most vocalists change these up for live performances versus how they do it in studio, so you can't really prep for some of the nuances simply by listening to their CDs. I enjoy learning their styles, keeping me on my toes to match their delivery on any given night."
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Whether leading his own band or playing bass and singing harmony with another band, Justin maintains a full schedule of live performances. You'll continue to find him in any number of Texas dancehalls, as well as being the returning favorite at Western Swing festivals and special events stateside and in Europe. He also still enjoys hosting the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree during occasional trips to Nashville. He accommodates numerous requests to perform at private events as well.
Although he prefers to be a quiet force behind the scenes, Justin also invests in "paying it forward," working closely with select young, talented artists who are also passionate about real country music.
"We all know that Nashville has kinda taken a left turn. For a lot of reasons, our 'brand' of true Texas country music isn't likely to become as mainstream as it was when my heroes were making a name in the dance halls and on the airwaves. Even so, there are still people who want to hear the real deal, and there are some younger musicians who are passionate enough that they won't sell out, even though they know they're swimming upstream.
"A career as a musician, no matter what genre, can be a tough row to hoe. To choose to do what you feel is right rather than what is most popular is even tougher. I get it. I can't spread myself too thin, but when I meet a person who is both talented and driven enough to deliver great traditional country music despite the odds, heck, yeah, I'm going to help."
As to his plans for the future, Justin will keep on singing, playing, recording, fostering and supporting true Texas Country and Western Swing music. "This music is my life. I'm going to keep on doing what I can to breathe more life into it. It's who I am, and it's what I do."