Christian Nodal playfully recalls that winning a Latin Grammy in 2019 was one the “worst moments” of his life for one reason: He had to compete against his idol, the most illustrious mariachi in the world, Vicente Fernández, for that year’s Best Regional Mexican Song award. “I didn’t want to be nominated to compete against him, because I don’t consider myself at his level,” Nodal says.
The billion-streaming 22-year-old Mexican singer has skyrocketed to global stardom on his own terms, elegantly fusing a sleek combination of mariachi and Norteño, which he’s dubbed mariacheño, while helping lead the way for a new generation of regional Mexican musicians. Yet none of this would’ve been possible, he says, without the formidable influence of El Rey, who died on Dec. 12 at age 81.
Vicente Fernández was one of the most influential and globally-recognized charros to walk this Earth. With more than 100 albums recorded, starring in more than 40 films, and a dozen Latin Grammy and Grammy awards to his name, El Charro de Huentitán planted a seed of Mexican culture throughout the globe. Nodal called Rolling Stone to offer his thoughts on why Vicente Fernández will continue to transcend and be an icon for so many.
This interview was originally conducted in Spanish.
It was about 9 a.m. when my PR, Conchita, called to tell me that Don Vicente had passed away. It really left me speechless. Emotionless. It was all of a sudden, so I didn’t have a reaction. But as the day went on, it became a very devastating situation.
He was fundamental for me, a foundation for how regional Mexican artists had to be, in terms of music quality, from his honest lyrics, to the gorgeous melodies and beautiful arrangements. They transcended and connected with his audience, with all of the Mexican public. As a person, he always represented Mexicans very well. He, being a person so connected to his music, made everyone else feel like they knew that person. You can tell he was a warm, peaceful person, and full of light. And that hurts a lot. It’s like losing someone you know, even though you don’t know him.
We are living through tough times, because, not to sound dismissive, but the truth is that music has long ceased to be the same. Many artists no longer compose, nor are they too concerned with their production — they are more concerned about whether they are charting, if they have Number Ones, if they are in the Top 10, you know? It’s like everything became about numbers and very plastic, and it is very difficult to have role models. In fact, we have very few role models, and I think the greatest one for us as Mexicans — if I’m talking about within the music industry — is gone. It was a great loss in every way, as the human that he was, and as the artist. His essence will always remain a basis for new talent to come, for the talent that has been here, and for his music peers that grew up with him.
I remember the first song of his I connected to, I was about six or seven, and I was drawn to a song called “Para Siempre.” In Mexico, there was a soap opera [Fuego en la Sangre] that started with “Vale más un buen amor que mil costales de oro” [“A good love is worth more than a thousand sacks of gold”]. I used to listen to that song all the time when I would be with my great-grandmother, may she rest in peace, to watch soap operas and drink coffee with pan birote. The next encounter I had was when I was eight or nine, my tata played me his songs. I understood his music was played at parties, and just everywhere. When I decided to fully get into regional Mexican music, that’s when I got more into his career, and listened to his wider discography. I really got into Don Vicente’s productions, which I think are beautiful, and very well done.
It has also been a cultural process, as I am from the North [the border state of Sonora], where banda music thrives more than mariachi, or any other genre. When I moved to Guadalajara [the capital of mariachi and charrería], I started diving deeper into mariachi. That’s why I named my music mariacheño, because I’m not Jalisquillo, I’m Norteño, so fusing mariachi and Norteño made sense. It would be disrespectful to compare myself to a true mariachi, so I wanted to invent this genre — even though it is still mariachi, but with accordion, and the instruments are played differently. I did not want to disrespect Don Vicente, Joan Sebastian, Juan Gabriel, or anyone who records mariachi as it should be recorded and interpreted. I have my own style, and I’ve studied the foundation, but nevertheless, I have my own essence, personality and sound.
When I recorded “Adiós Amor,” no mariachi wanted to play with me, no mariachi wanted to be in my group, because they thought that what I was doing was not disrespectful, but something very different. It wasn’t considered mariachi. In terms of Don Vicente being an inspiration to my music, the most I have taken is that my lyrics are very open and sincere that talk about real things, things that happen, like he did.
One of my most memorable moments I have of him is the time he let me record in his studio. It was about one to two kilometers from his house. To open the doors to his home is very powerful for me. I don’t open the door of my house to anyone, unless I really appreciate, trust, and respect them. For him to let me in was overwhelming. We never had a chance to talk or get into a conversation, but my engineer was his engineer too. It was always like, “Hey, tell Don Vicente that I want to meet with him.” “I already told him, compa. And if you want, he says to send him a song.” I don’t know why it never happened, but the fact that he respected my music, and that he liked what I was doing, made me feel good about it.
Another time was when I won a Latin Grammy, and I was nominated alongside Don Vicente. I remember it was one of the worst moments of my life! I didn’t want to be nominated to compete against him, because I don’t consider myself at his level. But to hear him sing that night with his son Alejandro and his grandson [Alex] was very powerful for me. It’s one moment I will never forget. When he sang, the words that came out came from the soul. He said that the Recording Academy gives new talent the opportunity to win an award, and I valued that very much. Maybe he didn’t need another one, because he has won so many. But the most important thing, beyond awards, is the affection he had for his country, and for his audience from around the world.
I do regret not going out to meet him. When I was recording my first album [2017’s Me Dejé Llevar], he went out a lot to take pictures with fans when he sang at the Arena VFG [in Guadalajara]. He’d sit on his chair for a meet-and-greet, which was an incredible act. One day my dad passed by to take a photo, but I was too shy to do so myself. I didn’t want to force it. I would want us to meet because we are in tune, because we vibed, because of the energy. The closest I got to it was through Alex, my engineer. Life knows how much I wanted that rapprochement. Although I didn’t have the honor of meeting him, it is clear that he was a being of light.
I’ve always said that an organic approach fills the heart more than anything else. And the night [of Dec. 12, in Fresno, California] was not planned. I always sing my own songs, because there’s no way an audience attends a show to hear someone else’s music. But before getting on stage, I spoke with Jason, Alejandro [Fernández’s] manager, and he told me some personal things, and on top of that we are in a very sensitive time — the fact that it’s the holiday season — gives you a lot of melancholy and a soft side. What’s good feels very good, and what’s bad feels very bad. So that news [of his passing] came to us, and it was very sad. So I told my musicians, “We are not going to sing my songs, we are going to sing Don Vicente’s songs.” As soon as we finished his songs, we dedicated one minute of shouting el grito, of applauding and praising Don Vicente, and then we continued our scheduled show.
It was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever had. There was an incredible energy on stage in Fresno. It’s also incredible how music transcends to other places. My audience in the U.S. is way more varied than when I’m in Mexico, or in another country, because in the U.S. there are many Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans… It was incredible how everyone was on the same channel, in the same tune, singing the songs together. It was something unforgettable, and I think Don Vicente listened, because an incredible energy was felt.
He was the man who carried Mexican culture like a seed and planted it in many countries through his films and music. Before him there was Jorge Negrete, José Alfredo Jimenez, Pedro Infante. When I went to Colombia, the biggest referent was Don Vicente, like in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. He is symbolic of what we Mexicans are, and that is exactly what I admired about him. He always represented Mexico, very much in his style and personality. I like to represent my Mexico in my own way and I love that people are accepting it. I don’t hope to one day become like him, but at least I hope to carry the Mexican flag, and that people feel proud when they talk about Don Vicente.