The Mavericks — the undefinable, underappreciated but beloved Nashville band from the 1990s — were always a terrific live group. But they never quite fit in on the radio. They just weren't country enough for the Garth Brooks/Shania Twain era or modern enough to be played on rock or pop stations next to Pearl Jam or the Backstreet Boys.
Now, after a six-year hiatus, the reunited Mavericks have found a home in the so-called roots or Americana scene.
"We're driving in our own lane now," said Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, who will lead the group into the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
"I watched the Grammys this year and there's so much variety that I think people are ready to have their music delivered to them in an organic and real way. I may be a bit of an optimist there, but I think there has been a change. You're seeing the success of Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers, on and on. People are more than ever receptive to it."
While the Mavericks' sound remains the same on their new album "In Time" — a mashup of country, Tex-Mex, old-time rock 'n' roll, lounge jazz, Latin and vintage pop — arriving there required a different approach. After all, if you're going to reunite a band after the second breakup, you'd better try a new strategy.
In the past, Malo would write and arrange the songs and send tapes so his bandmates could learn their parts before recording. This time, he had previous commitments and ended up writing songs on deadline. So the players hit the studio and jammed.
"We hadn't been in the same [recording] room for years," Malo said. "I had the studio booked for a week and we thought, if we get three or four songs, we were all going to be pretty happy. Everyone came in geared up. By the second day, we had nine songs recorded."
They ended up with 14 first-rate numbers on a disc that not only will rival David Bowie's "The Next Day" as comeback album of the year, but is one of the best reunion albums ever.
"Bringing all the things we learned being apart informed this new version of the Mavericks with a new energy and a new vigor and a real purpose," Malo, 47, said on the opening day of their spring tour. "To have everyone focused on making everything about the music better has been beautiful."
After years apart, the musicians relate to each other differently. For one thing, they now have regular meetings, he said.
"If people had grievances, they didn't tell each other; they told someone else, and it got translated incorrectly. This time around, we promised we'd get together as often as possible. For us, once a week is a good thing. There's a lot of business to take care of that we never cared about before. That wasn't smart on our part."
While Malo spent the '00s concentrating on a six-album solo career showcasing his magnificently soaring, Roy Orbison-evoking voice, fans kept asking about the Mavericks. The band had gone on hiatus from 2000 to 2003 and then reunited for an overlooked album that didn't get much label support. Though their concerts were well-received, by 2006 the band was "fried," Malo said. "It felt like everyone was starting to phone it in. That's not why we play music."
New gigs: carpenter, curator
Keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden became an art-museum curator in Chattanooga, Tenn. Bassist Robert Reynolds worked for a digital company. Drummer Paul Deakin toiled as a carpenter. Guitarist Eddie Perez joined Dwight Yoakam's band.
In 2011, after getting encouragement from fans, promoters and officials at Big Machine Records — home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw — Malo called a meeting of the Mavericks at a Nashville hotel. All gave the green light for a reunion.
One slight change: Reynolds switched to guitar. "One of the things I learned doing my solo gigs is no matter what song I played, I always loved the upright bass," Malo explained. "And Robert doesn't play upright. Guitar is really his first instrument. He fills a nice rhythm spot, me and Eddie play more of the leads, and you really have a full attack sonically."
Paving the way for the album was a series of reunion gigs, including a two-nighter last August at the Minnesota State Fair bandshell. Malo remembers those shows fondly.
"To come back with no new record out yet, it was tremendous to see the crowd of people and to get that kind of reception. It was truly heartwarming and unbelievable."
On their current tour, the Mavericks are performing almost all the songs on "In Time." The notable exception is "(Call Me) When You Get to Heaven," an 8-minute epic featuring gospel's McCrary Sisters.
"I had the arrangements in my head. But I didn't tell the band what we were going to do," he said. "I didn't know we were going to go for eight minutes. That's all a live performance with the exception of the girls, which we overdubbed the next day.
"One of my favorite pieces is Ravel's 'Bolero,' where it creates the tension by repetition. I wanted it to feel that the more we went, it could fall apart at any moment. We were exhausted after that. Vocally, I couldn't even talk for an hour after that. I was just done.
"That exasperation where you've rubbed yourself raw, you're just an exposed nerve — that's what I wanted to have at the end of that song. But in a musical way, the listener goes with you on this ride. It's a little painful but there is a reward."
The same could be said of the Mavericks' journey.