If you head to the lounge at Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek on any weekend night, and you might find a man performing there. He’ll have a mustache, maybe a cowboy hat. And he’ll be strumming away at a guitar. Rene Meave croons away here, singing original songs of heartache and loss. He's put those songs into a new album, Riding Mustangs.
Meave is a well-known character in Michigan. He’s a songwriter, and he helped form the band Los Bandits de Michigan. The band goes around to grade schools and shares stories and lessons about Hispanic life with children across the state. Meave reaches these students by sharing his own story of how he got to Michigan.
That story starts in the 1970s, when Meave moved to Michigan from Texas as a farm worker. Meave had worked across the country, in places like Florida and Alabama, but he says there was a reason he picked Michigan – and Kalamazoo, specifically -- as his landing place: The Beatles.
"We called them Los Beatles," Meave laughs. "[Their music] was totally different. But I recognized a lot of the stuff they were doing. There was something in their sound I heard before, and of course it was Motown! That’s what I kept hearing."
And that wasn't the only thing.
"My brothers-in-law, each had a Gibson Guitar," Meave says. "They talked about Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo. And I thought, well, this is the plan: I’ll head up to there as a farmworker, then I’ll stay there in the summer, find a place to stay. Get a job at Gibson and continue to work on writing songs and then head over to Motown. That was my plan! I mean, I had it all envisioned in my head. I knew it would take years, but I thought well, I was young!"
These dreams probably sound a little crazy. Gibson and Motown are a far reach for anybody, let alone a farmworker. But as Meave tells it, he was actually very deliberate and practical about his music, and particularly, finding ways to make money with it. Even from a young age.
Meave remembers playing in bars as an underage performer. He’d sneak in, hop up onstage, then play a few songs on the drums. And even back then, Meave says he knew how to get the bar owner to invite him back:
"Almost every musician knows that the first place that will pay you is the bar. I learned from a very young age from watching my brothers, people who play music, that you could make money, but you had to get people to dance. If they dance, they sweat. They sweat, they drink. And as long as the bar was getting what they wanted, keep playing! So to me it was like, Wow, dream come true. And then when I got [to Michigan], there was a lot of opportunity for me as a younger player. Not being able to get in bars, but a lot of concerts, free shows, sometimes paid shows.
"My whole thing in music is to use my learning as a farmworker, and then I transfer it into trying to do music," Meave explains. "Using the same work ethic. I worked longer hours. My sets were always longer. As a singer, I can do three hours before taking a break. With the band, I can do 90 minutes. I tended to play longer, especially if I saw the audience was there."
"And if I had a set list, I tended to say Scrap it, let’s get them on the floor," Meave continues. "Becuase I knew as soon as they got on the floor, they’ll dance. The bar will be happy. I’ll get paid! I had that concept very young."
Meave loved playing for hours at a time. But even back when he was a farmworker, Meave says he knew his eventual musical destination wasn’t going to be in a cover band. He wanted to be a songwriter. Meave says he started writing songs when he was still in the fields, with lyrics and melodies floating into his head.
But it took years, and dozens of songs, before anything came of it.
"I’ve been writing songs probably since I was 13 years old. But songwriting is a muscle. It;s like anything else. If you want to do it and be successful at it you have to do it all the time. Write, write, write, write, write, write. And you know, I can tell you that to write when I call one good song, I may go through 10, 15 songs before I can even get one good verse. And so I recommend to songwriters, if you're going to write, co-write with another person. Especially one that has a little more experience. If you suffer a little bit in the lyrical content and you're strong in the melody, well get hook up a lyrical person like I do with my friend, Clayton Sawyer."
But Meave says writing and performing original songs in Southwest Michigan wasn’t all that easy. For years, Meave says, many bars here didn’t want a singer who was going to get up on stage and sing original tunes. That made it tough for original songwriters to get together and work with each other.
So Meave took it upon himself to connect his community together. The first thing he did was form a band -- Los Bandits de Michigan -- with a goal of to help the local Hispanic community connect and grow. The band is now well-known across the state for teaching migrant issues and cultural sensitivity to students.
Instead of shying away from his ethnicity, Meave leans into it with the band. He jokes about his ethnicity, talks about tacos and tortillas and frijoles, and about what it took for him to leave migrant work. He says he wants kids to understand that it’s a good thing to be Hispanic and go to college. He’s been there.
"If you don't have any kind of diploma, you're not going to get a job," Meave says. "A lot of our kids are struggling. They're embarrassed about their names, their accents. We've been there."
We were using the music to tell stories about farm work, our community, work ethic and other things that concerned us. We're still dealing with racism. It's part of the nature of humanity. But it's something that it's taught. It's not something you're born with. So anything that can be taught can be untaught or you can relearn that. And it's ongoing, and we hope that other people pick up the gauntlet and run with it. And there seems to be that going on with other folks doing that.
Los Bandits brought together West Michigan’s Hispanic community. But Meave knew that wasn’t enough. He wanted to get songwriters from across the region together, too. So about seven years ago, he formed a local group: The Chili Pepper Songwriting Club.
The idea behind it was simple: a bunch of songwriters get together once a month at a bar in Otsego. They all gather around. One artist performs an original song. Then somebody else performs their own original song. Then another. Then another. It just keeps going like that -- songwriters sharing and critiquing music for hours on end.
Meave says the group created a real community here. And it’s a community that Meave features on his new album, Riding Mustangs. Nearly every song’s written with the help of these Chili Peppers. Meave says it’s a representation of his own music, but also a sign of what’s happening in the bars and small stages across Southwest Michigan. Meave says having so many of these artists together is a thrill for him on a personal level. But he says it’s also important historically for these songwriters to have their voices heard.
"It’s a great opportunity," he says. "If you see issues going on. Like,I'm so disturbed about Flint. I'm working on material. I don't want to take advantage, because it’s happening. But I’m a songwriter, and this is what writers are. Songwriters, we write about what’s going on. We’re historians of the time through music and word. That’s what we are."
Meave says that as he gets older, he thinks about what he'll have left behind in the region. He says part of that legacy is his own music. But he says he’s also proud of the songwriting culture that’s blossomed throughout Southwest Michigan.
"Right now I’m trying to record as much music as I can record. I've been very fortunate to work with other artists, to help them get to their dreams. And continue to do this," he says. "And by the end, I want people to just say this guy could write a song. I don't want them to say he was a Mexican, Latino, anything like that. Just that he was a songwriter."