(Story by Frances Madeson / Photos by Joy Godfrey)
Jose Antonio Ponce in partnership with his wife Kathleen has been producing the New Mexico Music Awards, now in their 30th year, since 2005. The awards are a way of recognizing excellence for recorded music, building community across musical genres and cooperation among recording studios. Jose Antonio, who plays the six-string and 12-string guitar as well as the acoustic bass, and who still aspires to compose that one hit song upon which to triumphantly retire and spread a little largesse to his family, met me at the New Mexico Jazz Workshop in Albuquerque for a delightful afternoon of conversation and an impromptu (at my urging) one-man hootenanny.
Frances Madeson: It is a mystery how a musician comes to play this instrument or that, how lyrics arrive in the form that they do with their specific messages and rhyming thoughts. How did you begin your love affair with the guitar and also, how did you find and come to trust the muse within?
Jose Antonio Ponce: Every musician I know became a musician to meet girls. A girl who wouldn’t give me the time of day on Monday but saw me in a club on a Friday, well suddenly she’d want to hang out with me. I started playing and writing when I was 13. I look back and cringe at my first attempts at poetry, so full of teenage angst.
Remember man that you are dust, I’ve given to you all my trust…[laughs].
My older brother taught me some chords—E, A, G and B—primarily because he wanted someone to accompany him. But when he went to the service, he took his guitars with him. So I saved my money picking alfalfa and stacking the bales, or picking watermelons on a farm down the road for 50 cents a day, until I had enough to go down to Mays Music where they had a guitar for $25. But by the time I got there, it was $40. The owner told me the $25 price was from a special sale last month. I didn’t want to cry in front of him so I ran out the door. He followed and asked me how much money I had. I emptied my pockets and showed him a little over $26. He said, “I’ll sell you the guitar.” I spent everything including my bus fare, and had to walk back 7 or 8 miles, but I had my first guitar.
And he threw in a Bob Dylan songbook!
Frances: That’s quite a trajectory—from backbreaking agricultural work to tending the diverse garden of New Mexico’s talented musicians. How did that come to be?
Jose Antonio: I was involved with the Music Awards as a volunteer from the very beginning. Eric Larson, its founder, was my producer and the producer for a lot of other people. He was a man who gave more than he took—money, technology, knowledge, experience. He helped me out a great deal.
Thirty years ago, the studios were exclusive. If you played for more than one, you’d get in trouble, you’d lose your job. He had the idea that the best way to collaborate would be to compete, to show off what each of the studios was doing and see who was best. He put it together, made it special and grew it into something people want to be a part of it.
To participate, musicians have to have recorded here in the state, in professional or home studios. For our awards program, you have to have some good product. For many, it’s a teachable moment—people will enter thinking they have a good product and then come back four or five years later and finally win because they figured out there’s more to recording than hanging a mic up.
Frances: Have you personally ever had a similar teachable moment?
Jose Antonio: Oh yeah! When I was 25 or 26 I sat in front of a producer, playing 10 songs for him. He’d stop me soon into each one and say—next one. Finally he said—these songs mean a lot to you, but they don’t mean anything to anyone else. He was right. Then for a time, I kept trying to write things I thought would sell. Finally, when I was 53, I became a good writer, a flood of stuff came out of me.
My wife thinks my best song is “These Are Not My Stars” [available to view on Vimeo]. It came from an encounter in one of the PTSD songwriting workshops we have with veterans. I was paired with a veteran who told me about his tour overseas. He said, “I can get past being 4,000 miles away from home, cold in the mountains or hot in the desert, the sand blowing, people shooting at me. But when I looked into the sky, it was tilted sideways.”
As a boy scout, astronomy was one of his main interests. He could always count on the stars being where they’re supposed to be. But in Afghanistan, they weren’t, and that made everything awful.
These are not my stars
this is not my sky
I’m so far away
from you and I
It’s turned upside down
all out of place
It’s as if my whole world
has been erased
…These are not my stars
Frances: Thank you, Jose Antonio. It’s an achingly beautiful song.
Jose Antonio: Thank you. But it’s not commercial. We don’t like depressing songs in pop music.
Frances: Take us from Afghanistan to the Albuquerque scene. What’s going on here—the good, the bad, and the…you know…
Jose Antonio: The bad and the ugly is that too many people are willing to play for free, and the rest of us go underpaid. If someone’s gonna play for $50, I can’t charge $300.
But the good is that it’s one of the most incredibly diverse scenes. We have standard stuff— country, pop, rock and jazz—but we also have instrumentalists, new age, world music, great Latin jazz and salsa scenes, a huge Americana scene.
Frances: Have you added awards in the dozen years you’ve been at the helm?
Jose Antonio: Yes, a singer/songwriter category, and we split the rock category further into indie and metal. When the awards started in 1987, there were 16 categories and 69 entrants; now there are 42 categories, and 600 entrants a year.
With the national awards like the Grammys or CMAs [Country Music Awards], it’s almost totally based on record sales and airplay, but none of that really happens here. We don’t know how many CDs a band has sold and we don’t want it to be a popularity contest. Judging is based on how well it’s recorded, if it’s performed well, a good composition, produced well with clarity of instruments and the vocals. After the preliminary local judging, we send the finalists out of state to artists, producers, managers and agents and engineers who have already made their mark and ask them to judge. It’s all done on a volunteer basis.
The $25 entry fees we collect help pay for the awards banquet, especially the sound production for the evening, which I often tell our performers may be the best sound you’ll ever have in your career—these are the people who do sound for Taylor Swift or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The fees also go toward paying our instructors for our workshops, like the PTSD songwriting workshop with vets. We also offer a scholarship—the Eric Larson Endowment—which is $1,000 in unrestricted money to a college junior or senior with a 3.0 average, majoring in music or recording. Eventually, we’d like to give a four-year scholarship.
Frances: Why have you devoted the bulk of your life to music?
Jose Antonio: Music is as important as anything else in life. The Sun City musicians helped end South African apartheid in 1985. We’ve had Band Aid, Farm Aid, We Are the World. Music heals, gives people hope. In almost every single instance when there’s something horrible going on, whether its 9/11 or natural disasters, when people start recovering you hear music. It’s resistance and hope and change, in fact all change comes with some sort of music attached to it. Where would the civil rights or AIDS movements have been without music?
Frances: What one change would you most like to effect?
Jose Antonio: Bring every soldier home. End war altogether, bring them all home and never send them out again. Instead, everyone should have a year abroad to learn that the rest of the world is just like us, but somehow more interesting.
Frances: After that lofty sentiment, I hate to be crass, but are musicians in New Mexico making it financially?
Jose Antonio: hONEyhoUSe is probably on their fifth CD, they tour pretty regularly, are extremely popular and regularly sell out their shows when they play New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
Nosotros has been around for 23 years; they do very well, as does Son Como Son, the salsa band.
We have no statistics, but in general, very few are making a living as musicians. To make a living, you have to learn to say no, because if you play for free or for a reduced fee, then you’ve set your prices. You have to be diverse—compose for TV, movies, play corporate gigs that will pay for your recording sessions, copyright fees, equipment, your manager and taxes.
Frances: What do you say about musicians who play solely for their own pleasure?
Jose Antonio: That’s the best music of all. It’s the music that’s spirit, your connection to God and the universe.
Frances: Will there be music in heaven?
Jose Antonio: Yes, and it will be jazz.