Once upon a time in New Mexico, there was boy who was born with golden ears. Whenever he heard great music, it became part of him, and it would shape his destiny in magical ways that would be revealed over time.
When the lad was four, his parents played John Prine’s The Missing Years, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1992. It was the first music the boy liked well enough to learn to sing along with. Years later, he would befriend and make music with songwriter Keith Sykes, who had collaborated with Prine on two of the boy’s favorite songs from that very album.
When he was 13, an older brother brought home Eric Clapton and B.B. King’s Riding with the King, the Grammys’ Best Traditional Blues Album of 2001. Their version of “Key to the Highway” led the boy to discover his favorite blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy, a country-blues legend who had died 30 years before his birth. A dozen years later, Gary Briggs, who had managed Clapton for Warner Bros. at the time of that recording, would sign the boy—now a young man whose voice had ripened to a rich, warm, café mocha timbre, and who had learned to write songs and play guitar in the modes of his folk-blues masters—to his first record deal.
Max Gomez is his name, he comes from Taos, he’s all of 25 now, and his debut album, Rule the World, is just now being released on New West Records, a label that’s home to the likes of Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, and John Hiatt (who, coincidentally, wrote the title track of Riding with the King). In the Americana genre, it’s like a rookie cracking the Yankees lineup.
“It’s been my life goal to make a real record,” says Gomez. “New West is like a family. I feel at home there.” Of course, most of the other family members on the label are graybeards old enough to be his father, a point not lost on Briggs, who has also handled aging luminaries Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, and Randy Newman.
“We made a decision to get young,” says the avuncular Briggs. “Max is everything I was looking for. We needed a new face.” The youngest of five brothers, by several years—“That’s why I got into ‘old’ music”—Gomez got a children’s guitar for Christmas when he was 10. The family moved from Santa Fe to Taos in the ’80s, and his father, Steve, became a furniture craftsman. “There’s a similarity between my dad’s work and mine,” says Gomez. “He really studied what he did; there were always a lot of books on old furniture in his studio.”
Gomez reports that growing up in Taos was “wild, man! It’s still the Wild West compared to any city or suburban lifestyle. You can get away with anything, and we were turned loose as kids.” At 14, when Gomez performed at a benefit concert, he played “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down”—a down-and-out classic by future labelmate Kristofferson. Soon he was playing at the Old Blinking Light, filling in for the house performer, Michael Hearn. “The school I went to was playing in that bar,” he says. Later, the Hotel St. Bernard became his regular venue.
“Taos has a great sense of community, it’s very kind,” says Gomez. “They embrace people’s goals and dreams. I’ve always had a few people who believe in me.” He’s friends with painter Ed Sandoval, among others, but as for the music scene, well, Taos is not Austin or even Santa Fe; as a solo singer-songwriter, he says, “I couldn’t help but feel like a loner.”
On a reconnaissance trip to Nashville, Gomez saw first-hand the workings of the Music Row songwriting process, where hired guns crank out tunes all day, every day; it was an eye-opener about the music profession. “I realized that this is not farfetched at all, that I can write and record,” says Gomez. “I came home and wrote ‘Rule the World’ in 15 or 20 minutes. When I wrote my favorite line—‘If I could rule the world / I’d take the pain from your heart / I would tear it all up, I’d tear it apart / I would drown out the cries with redemption songs / I’d part the truth from the lies and right from the wrong’—I knew it was really good. It had a catchy hook, and I knew it would do something for me.”
He recorded a demo version of the song and started flogging it. Briggs heard him sing it by accident (unless you believe in destiny, that is) in Austin in 2010, at a South by Southwest showcase, and was “intrigued. I couldn’t get him out of my head.” A year and a half later, Gomez was in Los Angeles, recording an album for New West with Jeff Trott, a songwriter and producer whose main claim to fame is as the architect of Sheryl Crow’s albums, all the way back to her 1993 breakout, Tuesday Night Music Club.
Trott knew exactly how to handle Gomez. Rule the World arrives as a fully formed piece of straight-up Americana, the debut of an artist you can anticipate listening to for years to come. Easygoing and expertly played blues, folk, country, and even gospel form a soundscape that creates a comfort zone around Gomez. He sounds grounded and fresh, mature yet still youthful, sensitive and earnest but not sappy. Mid-tempo songs get up and gallop, choruses swell in all the right places—but there’s no strain, no overplaying, no impulse to rock out to score angry-young-man points.
In concert, Gomez expands on this impression. He’s got a low-key charisma, and guitar chops plenty good enough to go it solo; he’s confident enough to wing it, follow his muse off the set list, and turn a gig into something more than a mere recital. Here we learn that there’s more where the album material came from, and a stage presence—including brown-eyed, boyish good looks—that could take him far.
“He makes it look easy, offhand, casual—without making it look like he’s not working on it,” says KBAC/Radio Free Santa Fe deejay Eric Davis, who’s been following Gomez’s career for a few years. “He gets who he is, but he’s just himself, and you either latch on to it or you don’t. Honesty comes natural to him.”
In songs with telling titles like “Never Say Never,” “True Blue,” and “Love Will Find a Way,” Gomez confronts personal-relationship issues that usually resolve with an upbeat philosophical declaration of steadfastness and growth. He’s not naïve, and he’s optimistic—and why shouldn’t he be? Everything is going his way. A seasoned coach, Briggs, is bringing him along carefully, promoting him on Triple-A (adult album alternative) radio stations, putting him on the road in middle America, and as an opener for established artists like Hiatt, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Mullins. Then, when the time is right—perhaps as early as next month—they’ll give the single, “Rule the World,” a chance to do just that.
Gomez may project a taking-it-in-stride, aw-shucks demeanor, but of course he’s excited. He’s also fully aware of the charmed, full-circle symmetry of growing up on records by the John Prines and Eric Claptons and B.B. Kings of the world, then getting to follow in just those footsteps by collaborating with their collaborators. “It’s hard to believe it came around in a perfect way,” he says. But if this sounds like a fairy-tale ending, it’s not. For Max Gomez, this is only the beginning.