Play it By Ear: How a Cuban-American From Miami Became a Budding Country Star

Everybody wants to find a way to get paid to do what they love. But the path to making a living off your passions is often an unscripted journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, reinventions and surprises. After all, it’s estimated that our generation will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of our lifetimes. In our new Play it By Ear series, we’ll take a look at the career 180s that got some of the young creatives we’re excited about where they are today.

Wearing a white cattleman cowboy hat, a black T-shirt, blue jeans and brown embroidered boots, Ricky Valido stepped up to the microphone on the main stage at a bar called Uncle Tom’s BBQ to play his latest song “I Love Livin.”

“Guitars and muscle cars/whisky and women/I like drinking/I like women,” Valido, 22, sang in a country drawl while strumming his acoustic guitar.

In front of an audience of more than 60 people, Valido performed on the wooden platform with his band, drawing approving smiles. It could have been a scene out of Nashville, with one major exception: Valido was in the heart of Hialeah, a predominantly Cuban and Cuban-American city in Miami-Dade county. In an area where you’re far more likely to hear salsa and Tropical Top 40 blasting from car radios than twangy country licks, Cuban-American Valido and his band the Hialeah Hillbillies have been making a name for themselves in a genre that most still associate with white, rural America.

But how did he get here?

Vintage records open a new world

Valido’s first encounter with country music was during his middle school years — while leafing through his grandfather’s record collection. There, he found his family’s affinity to the country lifestyle.

“I just kind of stumbled upon some of his old records and I was amazed by the cool vibe that old country music has,” Valido said. “That’s when I said ‘Wow, this is music that I am really attracted to.’”

In Cuba, Valido’s grandfather was a guajiro, a rural man from the countryside, before emigrating to the United States in the late 1960s. With him, he brought his love for música guajira, (which basically means “country music” in Cuban Spanish). Though they are sonically quite different, the lyrical themes of música guajira can be compared to classic U.S. country music. “I do think a huge portion of the Latin American population loves the same themes: meetin’, greetin’, cheatin’ and retreatin’, Eddie Wright-Rios, a Vanderbilt University professor, told the Washington Post of the connection between Latinos and country-western music.

Though Valido didn’t always listen to country music, now, he epitomizes the country lifestyle. During the week he can be found practicing in his personal studio, replete with sound control systems, a collection of guitars, and a PA sound setup, while his weekends are filled with performances around South Florida’s country bars and social venues.

The first instrument Valido picked up was a six string, nylon brown, guitar when he was eight. His mother and grandmother saved to buy him the guitar. He considers himself a young man with an old soul. His music instills the old country melody, a more melodramatic sound, that complements his bass voice.

Throughout the years, Valido’s biggest supporters have been his parents. His father, Enrique Valido, is his righthand man, the point of contact for venues and his general manager. Valido’s mother takes the role of clerk. She ensures that all paperwork is in order as per government regulations.

Blending genres and identity

Contemporary country music has evolved in the last five years with artists experimenting with new genres. Tim Conlon, director of music at Kiss Country 99.9 FM, says it’s becoming harder to recognize a country song because of its expansion and the addition of non-traditional country sounds.

“It’s not your ‘mom and pop’ country music anymore,” Conlon said. “The artists are making country off of stuff that they hear. You might not know it is a country song cus’ it doesn’t have the twinge and stuff like old country used to have.”

In his “69 Camaro” video from Valido’s album South of the South there are hints to the South Florida location. In it, heavyset men smoking fat cigars play dominoes surrounded by palm trees. But the rest has all the hallmarks of a typical country video — a barn setting, horses, guns, pick up trucks, moonshine. cowboy hats and even a Confederate flag.

“I am not the stereotypical country music singer.”

Conlon said, as a Latino, Valido posses a special advantage over other rising artists in the industry. His music can break norms and stereotypes. Conlon thinks Valido could hold a unique key to the Latino community and the expansion of country music into new horizons.

The Cuban-American country singer is proud of his ancestry. But what Valido truly wants is for his fans to see his music beyond his Latino background. He wants the masses to truly embrace his music for what it is.

“I want my audience to understand the type of approach that I am giving to country music,” Valido said. “I am not the stereotypical country music singer.”

In South Florida, a growing number of diverse fans are filling amphitheaters from Palm Beach to Homestead, according to Conlon. He has seen an increased interest in contemporary country music among the Latino community.

Valido’s first independently produced debut album (not yet titled) will be release later this year. It will include 12 original songs. The young singer hopes to take his music to the next level by traveling outside of the state, pursuing his dream and reaching audiences around the country and world while staying independent.

“I really don’t want any tie ins with any label right now,” Valido said. “I want to have a chance to develop and explore different things before I get to where I want to get to.”