If there’s a genre in the music industry that’s considered to be one of if not the least diverse it’s country music but singer Leah Turner is hoping to change that. Her mother is a first-generation Mexican American and her father is a rodeo champion and they’re one of the main reasons why she’s one of the few Latinas in the country music scene. The 34-year-old signed with Colombia Records in 2013 after music icon Kenny Loggins heard her sing and convinced her to move from Santa Barbara, where she was attending university, to Los Angeles.
She’s one of a handful of country artists of Mexican descent carving space for their stories and musicality in a music genre historically dominated by white men mainly from the South. Leah is in a category that’s small but mighty with other Latinx country chart-topping singers including Rosie Flores, Kat & Alex, and Star De Azlan. Her 2013 hit “Take the Keys” peaked at No. 37 on Billboard’s country airplay chart making her the highest-charting Mexicana in country music and she hopes it’s just the start of more Latinx representation in country music.
“When I was told that by the LA Times, I cried! It shows that it is way long overdue. It’s a need and there is a massive gap, that I am having the honor of filling. To show that country music is for everyone. The Mexicanos are here,” she tells HipLatina. “It’s an honor to be a first in a genre I love so much, an honor to show Mexicanos we have a place in country music, and to show little girls the sky is the limit when we put our minds to it.”
Artists of Mexican descent have been around for decades but recognition remains a rarity. Lindi Ortega, The Mavericks, The Last Bandoleros, and Rick Trevino are some of the established Mexican artists in country music who have risen to stardom in the past 30 years. Iconic country singer Linda Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father) features mariachi music in homage to her Mexican German father and its release was a seminal moment, according to country music blog, The Boot. Trevino’s highest-charting hit “Running Out of Reasons to Run”, reached No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1996. Turner’s success on the charts is an indicator of a potential shift toward more inclusivity but a stark reminder of the years in between Mexican country singers topping the country music charts.
Inclusion and representation are hard to come for Latinxs in various industries but while actual Latinxs in country music are few and far between, music about our culture by white, non-Latinx artists is far more common and it tends to revolve around having a good time and drinking tequila. Going as far back as 1955 there have been references to Tequila and the U.S.- Mexico border. In “Drinking Tequila” (1955) Jim Reeves sings about enjoying tequila on a trip to Juarez. Alan Jackson sings, “I need a little time to vegetate my mind, escape from my reality / Just Mexico, tequila and me” in “Mexico, Tequila and Me” (2015). Tim McGraw’s “That’s Why God Made Mexico” (2002) basically summarizes the way Mexican culture is often depicted: “And that’s why God made Mexico/A place where we can lay low/Where the Cuervo goes down nice and slow.”
Leah is hoping to change that and tell more nuanced stories stemming from her own experience. “I would love to see more people in country music whose culture is actually [Mexican], not just a good time drinking tequila, wearing a sombrero on vacation. I mean that is a lot of fun, but actually the stories of the vaqueros and the hard-working, family-oriented, believers in faith and of course fiestas, but for it to actually come from the peoples whose culture it is,” she shares. She emphasizes the Mexican history of the rodeo popularized by vaqueros in the Southwest that’s played such an influential role in the culture and style of country music but its roots aren’t acknowledged or widely known.
We aren’t just tacos, tequila, señoritas, and jalapeños. The two cultures of the American Cowboy, the Vaqueros, and what country music topics sing about mirror one another. I’d just like for Mexicanos to see themselves in that mirror.
Leah says bringing her Mexican roots into her music was the only way to approach it. “There has been so much representation of the Mexican culture in country music for so long, I had to marry them, the two cultures have been dancing for so long.”
This opportunity to break into country music feels like the American Dream come to life for Leah, and she’s grateful for the sacrifices her maternal grandparents made. “[They] risked everything to come over here from Mexico with two kids in tow for a better life. To give my mother and her siblings an opportunity that wasn’t offered. Because of their fearlessness and the fight I am sitting here today singing about my diverse life through a country song. That’s the American Dream.”
One of her most personal songs — “Vaquera and the Cowboy” — is about her parent’s love story made that much more significant to her considering when they married it was deemed controversial. “My parents got married in a time when you didn’t marry outside your race… but they let vibes be felt, chemistry be seen, and looked at the heart.”
They inspired her to name her EP Lost in Translation and appeared in the music video for the song. That EP is her current project as she’s currently working on re-releasing it in Spanish in October along with some additional new tracks. The album was a passion project that she says didn’t get much pushback which she attributes to timing as there’s now more of a push for inclusivity and diversity, especially within entertainment, yet there is still a lot of progress that needs to happen.
“In the past, when I wanted to embrace all of me, the Mexican side and the cowgirl side, I was told ‘It’s not the right time, let’s focus on the country-side’ I think that was said out of a place of protection because of how the country music audience can be, they weren’t ready. The thing they didn’t know is they were ready all along because the songs of Garth [Brooks], George Strait, Reba [McMcEntire], Chris Ledoux are all based on the Vaqueros, the rodeo.”
She’s had to deal with her fair share of ignorance including a former manager who called her “taco” in private as well as in business calls. But it’s the social media trolls that have spewed the most hateful comments including “go back to Mexico”, “You have Latin music, we have Country. Stop trying to change everything”, and “Why the hell is she speaking in Spanish?”. Beyond doing away with the animosity and racism in the industry, she wishes people, in general, understood the diversity within the Latinx community: “Though all cultures are beautiful and have similarities, we are not one and the same.”
Since her 2013 debut, she’s toured or shared the stage with country stars including Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen, Rascal Flatts, and Cole Swindell. This month some of her outfits along with her guitar and the handwritten lyrics to her latest “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” will be on display as part of a Women in Country music exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles opening on the 27th. It’s yet another way she’s raising visibility for Mexican culture in the country music scene.
“The culture has been represented in the hats, the conchos, the turquoise, and even the subject of many country music songs. It hasn’t been represented by someone whose culture it actually is in a very long time, someone who has the sangre running through their veins. So, for me to be able to be at the forefront of educating the country music world on where the American cowboy traditions came from is an honor,” she shares. “Not many people know that the Vaqueros were the first cowboys, where the rodeo came from, or even what the shape of the hats they are wearing represent. There hasn’t been a Mexican American in country music for over 20 plus years. And for me to be not only a female in country music but Mexicana in country music is exciting for me. I get to represent two sides of who I am in a genre I love so much and a culture that has been present for so long.”