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Folk singer is putting her best foot forward

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Singer/songwriter Lara Manzanares’ “Land Baby” was the 2018 Album of the Year at the New Mexico Music Awards. (Courtesy of Philip Wiley)

One of Lara Manzanares’ earliest memories is of sitting in her grandparents’ house in Tierra Amarilla and listening to her great-grandfather Eluterio Martinez play “La Varsoviana” on the piano. As Grandpa Luther played the tune, Manzanares’ grandmother taught her to dance to the song widely known as “Put Your Little Foot.”

Little did Grandpa Luther or Manzanares imagine that one day, the little girl would grow up and become a guardian of northern New Mexico music, performing such standards as “La Varsoviana,” “Cielito Lindo” and “El Hijo Desobediente” at farmers’ markets and folk festivals across the state.

Manzanares, who also writes her own songs, will perform at the Museum of International Folk Art on Wednesday, Nov. 13, from 2 to 3 p.m. Her appearance is part of an exhibit called “Musica Buena: Hispano Folk Music of New Mexico,” which opened on Oct. 6 and runs through March 7, 2021.

It was a circuitous journey from the living room in Tierra Amarilla to Museum Hill, one that included the 2018 Album of the Year at the New Mexico Music Awards for her record “Land Baby.”

To hear Manzanares tell it, the destination was never clear. But like many other northern New Mexican stories, the tale includes encouragement from family, detours and chance meetings with helpful strangers.

Grandpa Luther, Manzanares’ great-grandfather on her father’s side, was the one who started it all. A native of Los Brazos, he built a house across the street from the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in nearby Tierra Amarilla that would later be made famous when taken over by Hispanic activist Reies Lopez Tijerina.

A self-taught pianist, Grandpa Luther and his brother Sy Martinez played Lito’s Ballroom in T.A. and sometimes in dance halls over the border in Colorado. “He would come home and leave all these crumpled dollar bills on the table,” said Manzanares. “Grandma would carefully straighten them out, put them in a stack and then hide them.”

Grandpa Luther may have served as the inspiration for the future folk musician, but it was Grandma Vera Boyd, from her mother’s side of the family, who bought Manzanares a piano and guitar, and drove her to music lessons as a child. “Grandma Vera took on a lot of our cultural education because my parents were sheep ranchers who were trying to put food on the table,” she said.

Grandma Vera decided that the Manzanares kids needed braces and eyeglasses. A routine developed where monthly medical appointments in Farmington were scheduled on the same day as music lessons with J.K. Brown in nearby Bloomfield. Under Brown’s tutelage, Manzanares learned bluegrass standards. There were no music programs in her school, she noted.

Manzanares would have been content to quietly study music, and play for family and friends, but her father, Antonio Manzanares, had different ideas. “Our family used to go to the farmers market in Los Ranchos (de Albuquerque) early in the morning,” she said. “The night before, my father would tell me to pack up my guitar. I would always forget on purpose until one weekend he put the guitar in the car himself.”

‘A lot of money’

Once at the farmers market, Antonio Manzanares told his daughter to begin performing. “He said, ‘You go do that.’

“There was no arguing. I put on my guitar and opened up the case so people could leave me tips. I wasn’t confident enough to sing without my music on a stand in front of me. I was singing for a while basically with my eyes closed. Then I looked up and noticed a bunch of dollar bills in my guitar case. It was about $50. That was a lot of money then. It still is a lot of money,” the singer recalled.

After that, Manzanares would accompany her family to farmers markets and play for tips while her family sold lamb. Over the years, the teen started making friends among vendors at the markets, especially at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Among the musician friends she met in Santa Fe were Glen Martinez from Dixon, Eloy Trujillo from San Juan and Frank Quintana, who played the requinto.

Manzanares would play guitar with Martinez at a booth where he sold little animals fashioned out of dried gourds that he painted.

Trujillo and his wife Frances created a songbook with mariachi standards, rancheras and corridos that they gave to Manzanares. She also received a songbook with typewritten lyrics from Quintana, who told her that he got it “in prison.”

When you watch a video of Manzanares playing at the Corrales Farmers Market that is part of the “Musica Buena” exhibit at the folk art museum, it’s hard to imagine a shy, tall teen who played basketball and enjoyed weaving on the loom in her room. Today, the beautiful 35-year-old is a commanding performer who knows how to establish a connection with her audience with indie folk songs she has written herself, Spanish standards and, above all, stories.

Lara Manzanares’ “Land Baby” was the 2018 Album of the Year at the New Mexico Music Awards.

She credits northern New Mexico music great Cipriano Vigil with teaching her about stage presence when she and her family were part of the 2000 Smithsonian Folklife Festival exhibit “El Rio” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Manzanares and her mother Molly had a booth with a loom while La Familia Vigil performed in a nearby music tent. “Every day for two weeks, I heard Vigil and his family. I remember I fell in love with ‘La Llorona.’ The music was part of it, but his stage presence and storytelling created a deep cultural experience.”

Despite her musical roots, Manzanares didn’t decide to become a full-fledged entertainer until recently. After graduating from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language and Literature, she continued her education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she completed a one-year program in Visual Communications.

Then it was off to San Francisco for a master of fine arts degree at California College of Arts. Manzanares remained in California for four years after finishing the two-year program, working in a variety of jobs. “All the while, I was busking, meeting other musicians, learning new music, writing songs and generally just doing lots of artsy stuff, like a pop-up glow-in-the-dark weaving performance at a blacklight gallery event,” she said.

The artistic life was interrupted in November 2015 when Manzanares fell ill with a mysterious auto-immune ailment that drained all her energy. She returned to New Mexico, where she was diagnosed with a form of severe dysautonomia and started receiving Vitamin B-12 shots. About an hour after receiving her first shot, Manzanares said, “I suddenly woke up. I hadn’t been able to sing for a while. I realized how essential music is to me. I said to myself, ‘No more messing around.’ ”

‘Land Baby’

Two weeks later, a sick friend called Manzanares to fill in as the entertainer at a private party. It was there she met a benefactor who provided her with the means to record her award-winning album “Land Baby.” “I received this amazing gift from this person. It changed my life,” she said.

Because of her depleted energy, it would take Manzanares nearly a year to record “Land Baby” under the direction of Jono Manson at Kitchen Sink Studios in Santa Fe. “Working with Jono in the studio was great. He’s a professional engineer, producer and musician, so he was able to describe stuff to the musicians. He wasn’t heavy-handed at all. We were able to communicate.”

What’s next for Manzanares? “Since I’ve been back in New Mexico, I’ve been making a lot of connections with people, not just with my songbooks,” she said.

The Corrales resident has become a member of the New Mexico Hispano Music Association. She and Roberto Martinez, whom she met along with his band, Los Reyes de Albuquerque, when she was an intern for a Smithsonian Folklife Festival exhibit in 2004, have performed together.

Manzanares recently wrote a ranchera and wants to raise money to record another album. Also on her wish list: More travel. As she regains her strength, Manzanares would like to perform in neighboring states.

Who knows? The next year could find her in Pagosa Springs or Antonito, Colorado, following in the footsteps of Grandpa Luther.