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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011

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The Music Man

Brandon Perrault has provided the soundtrack for much of the past 20 years in Grant County.

 

Story and Photos by Richard Mahler

 

 


Brandon Perrault remembers the day music changed his life.

"I was in the fifth grade at Stout Elementary in Silver City," he recalls, closing his dark brown eyes to recover the memory. "My music teacher, Mrs. Rambo, asked me to do a solo of [the popular Italian classic] 'O Sole Mio.' I sang one verse in Italian and another in English. After I finished, people looked at me differently. Real differently." Pantomiming the universal gesture of astonishment, Perrault cocks his head, drops his jaw, and peers at me quizzically.

Brandon
Brandon Perrault. (Photo by Richard Mahler)

"It didn't register until that moment," he whispers, leaning forward in a kitchen chair, "that I could really sing."

Yes he can.

And he does.

For over two decades, Brandon Perrault's silky tenor and smooth guitar have graced a soundtrack for virtually every kind of social event in southwestern New Mexico. Whether performing on his own or backed by others, this gentle, good-humored man with the generous, sensitive spirit has played for countless dances, weddings, fundraisers, conventions, anniversaries, concerts, legislative functions, sporting events, church services and funerals. You can hear Perrault on commercials, at street dances, and during farmers' markets. He performs regularly at bars, nightclubs and parties.

"I mainly play guitar and piano," he says, "but I can also play the drums, accordion and guitarrn [the giant six-string bass of mariachi bands]." Asked to name key musical influences, his eclectic roster includes Jeff Beck, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, Brian Eno, K.D. Lang and Peter Gabriel. Deepak Chopra, Jesus Christ, Oskar Schindler, Marianne Williamson and local dermatologist/curandero Dr. Gilbert Arizaga (see Southwest Storylines, January 2010) are listed as spiritual influences.

Perrault is that rarity: a humble and multi-talented musician, singer and songwriter who hit the big time without hitting the big city.

"I'm grateful to be here," says Perrault, whose thick, black hair and soft features suggest more youth than his 38 years. "I love this area and feel such gratitude toward its people. I always feel taken care of by this community."

In the course of a meandering conversation at the business where his mother, Mary, cuts hair, arranges bouquets and sells religious articles — while her son sells musical instruments and gives lessons in a back room — Perrault describes a trip to Nashville during high school. That led to laudatory showcase appearances on a TV show and music video as well as a recording session in a state-of-the-art studio.

"It was a great opportunity," Perrault concedes — one that might have put him on a fast track to fame and fortune. "During my visit one of the top producers in the music business took me aside and told me, 'If you want to make it in Nashville you're going to have to move here.' But I wasn't ready. I wanted to come home and finish my studies."

And that's what he did. After graduating from Bayard's Cobre High School, Perrault won a music scholarship to attend Western New Mexico University. At WNMU he eventually segued into the teacher-training sequence, earning BA and MA degrees in music education.



Throughout this era — the early 1990s — he and his band, The New Moves, were so popular that they opened for such big names as the Texas Tornados and Ruben Ramos. Their unique blend of rock, Tex-Mex, blues and country music kept people clapping and dancing at the Hanover Outpost, VFW Hall and other local venues. The golden voice of their lead singer seemed equally effective in delivering slow, heartfelt ballads as it did screaming lyrics paired with a wailing electric guitar.

"One time we were the opening act for Little Joe y La Familia," says Perrault, "a touring Tex-Mex group that everybody around here just loved at the time. I actually was invited on stage to sing with Little Joe, which was a huge thrill for me."

Little Joe had no clue he'd been Perrault's first guitar teacher.

"You see," Perrault continues, "when I was in the 11th grade, living in Las Cruces, my parents gave me a used classical guitar that they bought at a yard sale. The funny thing was, I didn't know what to do with it." Mary and Ray were trying to cheer up their teenager, whose heart had been shattered by his first girlfriend. "I was devastated emotionally," Perrault recalls. "I was moping around and didn't want to talk."

But Little Joe was a favorite of Brandon's parents, who played the Tejano's albums on their home stereo. "I loved the feeling of that music," remembers Perrault, "and it connected deeply with my soul. So I started trying to match tones on my new guitar to how Little Joe was singing. I couldn't read music and I didn't have a chord book. I guess you could say I learned to play because of a broken heart."

Perrault knew he had an aptitude for music. In the absence of formal training, he'd played viola and saxophone by ear. His singing had raised a few eyebrows. A defining breakthrough came near the end of high school, when Perrault asked his band teacher if he could sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before football games: "After I auditioned, my teacher's jaw literally dropped. I told him I kind of knew I could sing, but had never done anything about it."

Before long, a mentor named Eddie Bustillos was showing Perrault proper guitar chords and coaching him on how to perform. Within months Perrault joined a band and was playing at school functions. The band was blazing hot. Despite its members being underage, the group was soon invited to perform in local bars. Everyone seemed captivated by the versatile talents of these mining-district kids. Two decades later, Perrault occasionally books gigs with some of the same musicians.

"We had a lot of fun in those days," he says, face lightened by a wide grin. "I've been in numerous bands since then."



Yet despite his early success with popular music, Perrault's first released recordings were of spiritual songs. "When I was 20," says the devout Catholic, "I made a tape of Christian music called 'Come Holy Spirit.' On it I sang songs that had inspired me," including "On Eagle's Wings" and "Amazing Grace." "I've always felt that my ability to sing and play were gifts from God." Proceeds from this collection benefit Santa Clara Catholic Church, with which Perrault has been long affiliated and whose priest, Robert Becerra, is a good friend. The tapes and CDs have sold briskly not only here, but at stores and churches in other parts of the US.

Also popular with audiences are Perrault's original songs, which deal not only with love and romance but challenging topical themes. "Vietnam Man," for example, pays tribute to the strength and bravery of men like his uncle, Fred Jimenez, who served in combat during the Vietnam War. "Salt" salutes the men and women, including members of Perrault's extended family, whose organized resistance during the zinc mine strike of the 1950s was portrayed in the blacklisted movie, Salt of the Earth. The songwriter strongly supports the effort of New York cinematographer David Riker to remake that film.

"Brandon is a man of great character and humility," says Riker. "It is obvious that he is more than a musician and singer."

Perrault shrugs off such compliments, insisting that "it's important to acknowledge and accept our past, including our struggles and suffering. I want to write music that can help heal some of the sadness, anger and misunderstanding around such things. I believe we live in a place of great healing."



This is small-town America, however, and sales of his various recordings don't yield enough income for Perrault to live on. "I think the secret to surviving here economically is being open and available to a number of different things," he laughs. "As in the rest of rural New Mexico, our people have to do a little bit of everything in order to make it."

Besides performing — which occasionally involves travel to other states — this Renaissance man teaches singing and guitar, sells music gear, and writes jingles for commercials. Perrault's clients for the 30- or 60-second spots have included Ambank, Cellular Connection, Cassie Health Center for Women, Ft. Bayard Federal Credit Union and State Sen. Howie Morales.

Another source of income has been teaching in public schools. His first assignment was as a Spanish instructor, then as the only teacher at a one-room school in Gila Hot Springs. "It was a baptism by fire," he says, with a chuckle and roll of his eyes. "I was teaching students from kindergarten through 12th grade under one roof. But it was a beautiful experience because the older kids always helped the younger ones." Perrault transitioned to a post at Cobre teaching music, which went on hiatus last October. In due time, he expects to return to local classrooms.

"I love kids," he says, gesturing at a photo tacked on the wall that shows his eldest son, Oliver, playing football. "Family is very important to me."

The divorced father of five, ages 1 to 15, Perrault himself is the eldest of nine children. Big families are the norm for his clan: His father, Ray, boasted a dozen siblings. Musical talent seems to run in the line, too. As children, Brandon's father and aunt sang for tips outside a popular tavern in Mimbres. Now Brandon's son Oliver, a drummer, plays trumpet in the Cobre High School band and his 13-year-old sister, Gracie, is blessed with a remarkable singing voice. One of her ancestors was an Italian opera singer.

"I don't know if they thought it was something that ran in the family, but my parents knew I had something," Perrault says, citing the gift of his first guitar and his mom's earlier present of a $400 accordion. "That was a lot of money for my parents. They and my grandparents have helped me in many ways with my music and singing."



Perhaps genetics also endowed Perrault with his entrepreneurial spirit and embrace of diversity. This legacy traces to Great-grandfather George O. Perrault, a French-Canadian native of Quebec who became one of the first Anglo settlers along the Mimbres River during the mid-19th century. George admired the valley while a sergeant in the Union Army's California Column during the Civil War, stationed in Mesilla. When George's unit disbanded in 1866, he moved to Pinos Altos, then to rich bottomland south of San Lorenzo. The soldier subsequently met and married a Mexican woman south of the border, who died giving birth to their child. After operating a farm and ranch in the Mimbres Valley, Perrault oversaw a general store, mine, and orchard in Hillsboro, where he married Mexico-born Adelaida Alert.

In contrast, the maternal wing of Brandon Perrault's family is said to include direct descendants of the Apache leader Geronimo and a Native American scout for the US Army nicknamed Apache Jim. The irony of having ancestors on both sides of the so-called Indian War that plagued Grant County into the 1880s is not lost on the songwriter, who wants "to write about those Apache roots. Whenever I pass the spring along Highway 180, south of Hurley, where [captured local Apache leader] Mangas Colorados was tortured and killed by the US Army, I bow my head and say a prayer."

For Perrault, our region is a place of healing as well as suffering. Music, he says, can be a catalyst for restoration and compassion. "It truly is a universal language," Perrault believes. "It touches something in us: our bodies, our souls, our consciousness. Music is a part of every special occasion, from birth through death."

Concerned about cutbacks in funding for arts education in schools, Perrault articulates a conviction that "the arts promote peace, understanding and values. I think the more we can promote all types of art, from every culture, the more peace we will have in the world and in our lives." Tuning into the creative intuition that has guided his own career, he believes, has enriched his life without measure. (Perrault won't even accept a guitar to sell "unless I like it, unless I feel something about it that touches me.")

Perrault trusts a gut instinct, an inner compass, that forges a bond through music with a community — and a land — where his roots have become deeply entwined through the passage of many generations.

"I find that everything I do that comes from a sort of universal presence — call it God if you want — seems very easy for me. Such things come so naturally that it feels like imaginary hands are helping me. Sometimes I feel like a song I'm composing is already written on the great hard-drive of the universe and I'm simply tapping into it. And I am very grateful for that."

Perrault pauses to consider the relationship of his work to something bigger. "I feel we are all spiritual beings having a human experience here on Earth," he concludes. "I feel we are one part in the physical world, one part in the spiritual world.... And I believe that God is the 'great allower,' allowing us simply to be who we are, without judging."



Brandon Perrault's music CDs are sold at his performances or The Candy Bouquet, 2065 Memory Lane, Silver City. Learn more at www.brandonperrault.com or by calling (575) 590-7776. Check Desert Exposure's monthly events calendar for notices of Perrault's upcoming appearances.



Richard Mahler is a writer and tour guide based in Silver City.
Learn more at www.richardmahler.com




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