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Latina country singer Valerie Ponzio draws inspiration from her hometown of El Paso

Downtown El Paso seen from the Franklin Mountains overlooking the city.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Downtown El Paso seen from the Franklin Mountains overlooking the city.

Hispanic artists have been making their mark on country music since the 1970s, when South Texas natives Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez first topped Billboard’s country charts. Despite their success, many have faced marginalization on the path to stardom.

But things may be changing — just ask Valerie Ponzio. The El Paso native rose to fame in 2017 after a stint on NBC’s “The Voice,” where she garnered national attention for her rendition of the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire.” This September, Ponzio released her debut EP, “Frontera,” which explores her experiences growing up along the U.S.-Mexico border and how Latino music and culture has influenced her as an artist. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about your start in country music. When did you decide to pursue music professionally?

Valerie Ponzio: I’ve been doing music since I was a little kid. My older siblings influenced me a lot. They’re actually both musicians themselves. My mom loved country music a lot, so she would always bring artists and songs for me to listen to.

The pop country divas … I just was so taken with them, like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and The Chicks. In that era, that was heavily influential for me.

Obviously, “The Voice” was really important. Was that what opened things up for you? 

Definitely. Getting on “The Voice” stage was a game-changer and a big step up. I had actually decided right before I got the opportunity to be on “The Voice” to make the move to Nashville. Right at that turning point, that opportunity arose; I diverted and did that for a little bit. So, there were a lot of pivotal turning points in my career happening during and after “The Voice.”

Frontera means “border” in Spanish. You’ve said your hometown of El Paso was a big inspiration. How do you think El Paso shaped you and influenced your music? 

I feel like it’s something that, no matter what I’m in the mood to do stylistically or where my tastes are turning, a cornerstone is just always going back to my roots and where I came from. Growing up in a border town like El Paso, you don’t realize how much it does shape you. There’s definitely moments where you take your hometown for granted and you’re just kind of like, “I want to get out of here.”

But I learn every day more and more how much it shaped me and how grateful I am for where I’m from. So, it just comes out in my writing. I love the people. I love how earnest and hardworking everyone is, and the love, family and community where I come from. It’s just something I can’t help but be pulled back to singing about.

As a Latina artist, what’s your experience been like navigating the country music scene? How open has the industry been to the stories you want to tell?

Country music has been a really great genre for me, period. Getting more immersed into the industry here in Nashville has definitely had its challenges, whether I’m Latin, whether I’m a woman, but it’s also had its opportunities. But at the end of the day, I think the overall picture is that there is a challenge.

Getting a Latin story is still a little bit uncharted territory. I think that a lot has changed in the past … I’ve only been here for five years. So, even in five years, I think what I’ve seen is just more openness in writing rooms and with the industry, like the Country Music Association wanting to recognize me and do a whole beautiful profile on me for Hispanic Heritage Month.

When I first got to Nashville, it was a little more foreign, like, “Oh, I’m not really sure how your Latin story or your border town story is going to fit into this.” Now, it’s a lot more like people see it. They’re like reaching out. I think that there can be a lot of awesome exploration of where this goes in country music.

What do you think is driving the effort to make the country music scene more diverse?

I think coming out of 2020 there was just a real reckoning of representation, and more voices. It’s been something that hadn’t really been talked about a lot. I think that after a lot of just these issues confronting them, it was like, “now’s the time.”

I’m definitely here for it. I love it. I love country music. I think that every genre has a thing that they can look at and say, “who have we been ignoring?” So, I’m very happy and grateful to see that country music has been willing to brave that and face that and say, “let’s look at this.”

As an artist who understands that line that separates different genres, do you find yourself reaching into sounds from other places that might not have conventionally been a part of popular country music and trying to integrate those? Do you feel like you’re making a lot of musical compromises?

At a wedding or a quinceañera, you will hear Tejano music and Latin music go straight into country music on the dance floor. And everybody just acts like it’s nothing. We dance and we celebrate in those styles so effortlessly. For me, that’s how I’ve approached my music — like what that Mexican border town party looks like and sounds like. I definitely have played with some sounds. I’ve even incorporated some reggaeton beats, like a reggaeton kind of pop country type vibe. So, that’s definitely fun to do.

You had the release of “Frontera” back in September. What’s next for you?

I am looking at closing out fall and winter with a lot of writing, because I definitely have more songs that I want to put out. I’m looking at 2023 to hopefully release a full album and really keep at what I’m doing stylistically, but add a few more things and a few more different approaches, as I’m able to get so many new opportunities with what’s happening in 2022.

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