Singer Frank Ray says right now is an "exciting time" for Latinos in country music.
Ray, whose song "Country'd Look Good on You" reached the top 50 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs list last year, is among a new generation of Latino artists smashing barriers in a genre that has long been considered predominantly white, all while honoring their roots.
"I'm just really trying to represent my culture and let other aspiring artists know that they got a seat at the table," Ray told "Good Morning America."
Ray is celebrating the release of his new EP, "Raíces" -- which translates to "Roots" -- for which he took five songs from his debut self-titled album released earlier this year and performed them in Spanish. "Streetlights" became "Luces De La Calle" and, as he explained, the music became "a little more approachable" for Latino listeners.
"I've always wanted to embrace that part of my heritage as an artist," said Ray, who is of Mexican descent and was born in New Mexico and raised there as well as in Texas. "I just wanted to do it in the best way possible that's authentic to not only me but to the culture."
"The culture hasn't been represented for the better part of 25 years," he continued. "I'm just really trying to represent my culture and let other aspiring artists know that they got a seat at the table."
Expanding the genre while being themselves
Michael McCall, a senior writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said that as the Spanish language has continued to permeate mainstream culture, the public is "seeing that in country music as well."
Laura Denisse, the lead singer of Laura Denisse y Los Brillantes, said her band's music is "authentic" in every sense of the word.
"I'm not trying to change who we are," she said. "We are making country music in our own way, fusing the sound of Nashville with the joy of Mexico."
Denisse, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, pointed to her latest album, "Fortune," the sound of which she describes "as if Nashville and Mexico had met at a party and became best friends."
"That's how I hear it," she said. "It's an album that doesn't sound like anyone else, and I'm proud of that. We dared to merge the best of both worlds."
Denisse said she sings in English "because I dream big" and in Spanish "because I am proud of my roots," giving credit to Linda Ronstadt's landmark 1987 album, "Canciones de Mi Padre," as a sign that she didn't have to follow the rules.
"In the music industry, they always try to label you in a single genre, but she [shook] the system, and she managed to be respected and admired in both worlds," she said. "I'm trying to follow that path."
"It's hard, but it's possible, and I feel very proud of who I am," she said.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Angie K, who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States when she was 11, said after the explosion of the song "Despacito" in 2017, she began to get calls to translate songs into Spanish.
"I don't love translating songs directly. I can do it, but there's always something lost," she said. "The way that I write in Spanish is when it comes and it feels right in Spanish, I let the line be in Spanish. And when it comes in English, I let the line be in English."
Look no further than her song "Laredo," which just got a new acoustic version. The song tells a love story from generations ago that she said is inspired by the stories her parents told her about her great-grandparents.
In her song "Country Is as Country Does," Angie sings, "It's not a way of life, it's what you are made of."
"It's truly what you give the world and the way you interact with it that, in my opinion, makes you country," she explained of the lyric.
Ray, meanwhile, who is signed to Nashville's BBR Music Group/Stoney Creek Records, said the representation he and others like him are bringing to the country music genre is important.
"I think it's important for us to have artists that those people can feel connected to, right?" he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've looked out in the crowd and I can see people from the Latin backgrounds looking up and they just feel represented."
He continued, "As long as we continue to get that reaction and continue to garner that support from our culture, we're going to keep creating music and making headway in this genre where we haven't been represented for a long time."
The history and resurgence of Latino country artists
The culture Ray speaks of runs deep in the genre.
Latinos in country music aren't new. McCall pointed to names like Freddy Fender and Ronstadt as two luminaries of Mexican descent in the genre.
McCall said that Fender, who was born in Texas, "was and is one of the best known country singers of his generation," and added that Ronstadt, who was born in Arizona, "had a huge career way beyond country music."
Fender's hit 1975 song "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" didn't just hit No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, it also topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Ronstadt's song "To Know Him Is to Love Him" -- which she sang with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on their legendary "Trio" album in 1987 -- also hit No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
Other names that come up as trailblazers in the genre throughout history include Flaco Jiménez, who was in the Tejano supergroup the Texas Tornados with Fender, as well as Raúl Malo of The Mavericks, Johnny Rodriguez and Rick Trevino to name a few.
"Once you move off of what we think of as 'commercial' country music or what's always [been] somewhat defined by radio hits, there have always been Latinos who love country music and sang country music," McCall said. "The history goes far back."
Despite that history, representation for diverse country singers today is still extremely limited. Between 2002 and 2020, only 0.4% of country artists with songs on the radio identified as Hispanic/Latinx, according to an unpublished SongData analysis. Representation among major labels during that same period is similar, with only 0.5% of country artists identifying as Hispanic/Latinx.
While the traditional route to success for singers within the country genre has and continues to be radio, streaming has changed the game.
Daniel Calderon, the senior editor of U.S. Latin at Spotify, told "GMA" that the playlist "Country Latino" was created about two years ago at a time when he said they saw "the rise of Latin American artists in the U.S. really embrace country music."
"Latin music is not just the typical urbano sound or tropical sound that you may hear here and there, but it's more than that," Calderon said, adding that he's seeing "more artists of different cultures, different races, different colors really embrace country music."
Overcoming the genre's barriers
Denisse said she felt "nervous" when arriving in Nashville and recalled asking producer Misa Arriaga if she could put an accordion, a staple of regional Mexican music, in a country song.
"He said, 'Hey, I can tell you there's nobody recording an accordion here in Nashville. You have to be you," she remembered.
Denisse, who is up for two nominations at the 2023 Tejano Music Awards, one for best new female artist and one with her band for best new artist, also said she voiced concern to Arriaga that her English wasn't perfect, to which she said he told her, "That doesn't matter. This [is] part of your style."
As a band, Denisse said she wants to avoid being pigeonholed by the genre.
"We don't want to be a band that just is called to Nashville when it's Cinco de Mayo," she said. "We want to be a band that represents real country music, not just a cliché."
Ray said he believes the genre is more accepting of Latin artists now but he often feels like he and other Latin artists are "pushing the ball uphill."
"They're accepting, but it's also very difficult to find people that would help lift me up in the genre," he continued, adding that it's "very difficult to get people to want to collaborate" with him.
"We don't want to be a band that just is called to Nashville when it's Cinco de Mayo. We want to be a band that represents real country music, not just a cliché."ByLaura Denisse
While he reasoned that this is more due to other artists in the genre not being able to relate to him rather than "for any discriminatory reasons," he said he still feels like "a bit of a misfit."
Ray also pointed to non-Latin artists putting out music that is non-traditional in terms of the country genre and being embraced for it, saying, "It's very, very strange to me how somebody can look at that and be like, 'Yeah, this is country music,' but the minute I go out there and put a little salsa beat they go, 'Yeah, this ain't country music.'"
"That just goes to show you how much further we have to go," he said.
Angie, who was named to the 2023 class of CMT's "Next Women of Country," remembered saying something during a recent panel for women in music that she wasn't expecting to come out of her mouth.
"I didn't realize the barriers … to country music until I really started living in Nashville and was confronted with, like, the higher industry of it all," she recalled telling the audience.
Angie said she has overcome hurdles even beyond her heritage.
"Having a Hispanic, openly gay country artist that also sometimes sings in Spanish, that's a lot," she said, adding that she began to feel "pressure" to "maybe don't go too hard this way or that way."
Things began to change for her when she got her first big hit, 2020's "Real Talk," which she said gave her "a lot more permission to kind of do whatever," and she felt "very comfortable" to be herself.
The future of Latinos in country
In addition to the rise of streaming, Ray noted that platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube have introduced more ways for artists to spread their music.
"There's no particular one way to make it anymore. I mean, I've … kind of gone the more traditional route, which is country radio. Country radio has supported me wholeheartedly," he said. "I think it's important that these [other] tools exist for artists that don't otherwise have the opportunity or the resources … so that they can put their art out there."
Denisse pointed to the title of her band's 2021 album, "Country in My Soul, México En Mi Corazón," the latter part of which translates to "Mexico in my heart," which she said describes how she feels perfectly.
"Our community needs to feel proud of who we are, and I will always carry that message," she said. "I feel that today there are many more opportunities and the world has to open up equally for everyone. Latinos are increasingly on more important platforms. The world is receptive to us, which is why we must give the best of our world."
McCall said country music has been "a slow adapter" to "expanding what could be the country audience and what could be the country music sound and who sings it and who represents it."
"I think the more we see representation from all different cultures and all different walks of life, the better country music will be," McCall continued.
"I feel that today there are many more opportunities and the world has to open up equally for everyone. Latinos are increasingly on more important platforms. The world is receptive to us, which is why we must give the best of our world."ByLaura Denisse
Angie noted that with streaming and social media, along with increased representation, music fans have more of an ability to gravitate toward artists they connect with most, saying, "People, in my opinion, don't just like the song, they like the person."
"We're here, man," she added. "There's a lot of us, and we love making music, and we're here in country music, and we're not going anywhere."