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On The String: Mando Saenz, The Quietly Prolific Texas Troubadour

Chrissi Bickford

Mando Saenz is a relatively taciturn fellow, so I called my friend Jon Byrd to ask some scouting questions before our interview. Byrd, one of the finest country songwriters and storytellers I know, had a lot of wonderful things to say about his close friend Mando, including this, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but he’s a great drinking companion. You can sit at the bar, and 15 minutes will go by and nobody’s said a word. It’s awesome!” 

We crack up at this, because Mando has a lot to say; he just chooses his words carefully, whether in conversation or in song. He’s one of the finest writers in the roots country field, a torch-carrier for the tradition of poetic, narrative Texas songwriting who can also bring his best to Music Row co-writes aimed at the country marketplace. Another artist/fan is Jim Lauderdale, who’s written numerous songs with Saenz, including the title cuts to two of Jim’s albums, Time Flies, and From Another World. “He’s just a real treat to get to write with,” says Lauderdale, who says he’s eager to get back in the room post-pandemic. “I am very optimistic that we’ve got some more magic between us.” 

Saenz may be lesser-known than some of his road dog brethren, because he does less touring and recording and more professional songwriting in Nashville than most of his Americana colleagues. Because of that, he’s been a quiet and steady contributor to Music City,  with cuts for major artists like Miranda Lambert and four fine albums of his own on his publisher’s label, Carnival Music. The latest and his most sonically searching is All My Shame, released in late February.

It is, for the record, pronounced MON-do Sines, the former being short for Armando and, by chance, a synonym for ‘world.’ With an Army doctor dad, Mando was born in Mexico and grew up in three or four US towns before the family settled down in Corpus Christi, TX. And there was music in the family, which led to Mando playing guitar and writing by his teens. He says in Episode 166 of The String that it was during graduate school (he got an MBA) in San Antonio that he got connected with the Texas songwriting legacy, in part through Lyle Lovett’s Step Inside This House album, in which he covers the greats, Townes VanZandt, Robert Earl Keen and so forth. 

“So I really got a taste of the depth of the songwriting that came from Texas. And then moving to Houston soon after, and really getting into taking music seriously. They have a rich tradition of Texas folk songwriters there, so I really I really kind of dove into that and that's when I you know, it inspired me to take music seriously.”

Houston is where he met fellow new artist Hayes Carll, and they embarked on some tours together, bonding them to this day. Also there, he was discovered by Nashville-based producer and song publisher Frank Liddell of Carnival Music, a Texan who gravitated toward writers from the state like Bruce Robison and Miranda Lambert. Carnival re-released Mando’s 2001 debut album Watertown in 2005 and then put its weight behind Bucket in 2008 and Studebaker in 2013. All the while, though, Saenz wrote in town. 

Having been a Nashville for 15 years, I guess it just kind of snuck up on me that there's such a distinction, it seems like, up here between songwriter and artist. And it never really struck me until years after I moved here,” he says. “I just got caught up being just a songwriter, and not even even knowing that that was going on. And people asked me why it's been such a long time (between) records, and it wasn't anything consciously. It's just something that, you know, time goes by really quick when you're writing songs every day with different people.”

For the latest album All My Shame, Saenz turned to WILCO drummer turned elite producer Ken Coomer, a colleague from past recordings. The initial goal was an EP just to keep his pipeline going, but it turned into something bigger. “Doing an EP gave me some freedom. Well, we can be experimental here, because it's just an EP. We can always say, well, we were just trying this before we did a real record, you know? So, we got in there, and he chose songs that maybe I wouldn't have thought about.”

So while opener “Deep End” has the familiar country rock stirrings of a 90s Steve Earle album, the title track swirls and swoops with Revolver-era Beatles energy. “Talk Is Cheap” evokes the jangle pop of Marshall Crenshaw. And album closer “Rainbow In The Dark” taps strings for probably the most solemn and anthemic track Saenz has recorded. 

Besides my conversation with Mando, the String rounds out with a visit with Andrew Nelson and Blount Floyd, founders and co-leaders of country rock band Great Peacock, who are set to return to their intense road life, where they’ll finally get to play songs from the new Forever Worse Better album to live audiences.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org