During his junior high and high school days, New Mexico native Shawn Kiehne's summers were spent working on his family's ranch in El Paso, Texas. His workmates were primarily "Mexican cowboys who didn't speak English," and Kiehne quickly became enamored with the rhythm of their speech and the passion of their music.
"Working with those guys is how I learned Spanish, and I learned to love their music as we were driving around all day with the radio on," recalled Kiehne, 32, who lives just outside Albuquerque, N.M. "I could pick out a word here or there, and little by little I began to build my Spanish vocabulary."
With his El Paso days as a starting point, Kiehne - who has enjoyed singing for more than two decades - embarked on an unusual career path, becoming "El Gringo," the first (and perhaps only) Anglo to perform genuine norteño/banda music.
"I've always loved to sing," said Kiehne (pronounced KEEN-ee). "At one time, I was the singer in a country music band in Albuquerque. And one day a friend told me, "You're a good singer and you speak Spanish well. You should try to become the Eminem of Mexican music. And don't call yourself Shawn - call yourself El Gringo.' I thought it was a cool idea, so that's pretty much what I've been doing for the last several years."
El Gringo and his band will be among the many entertainers performing on Sept. 20 at Fiesta Georgia '09, metro Atlanta's largest celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The second annual Fiesta Day, a day long event devoted solely to Latin culture, food and music, will be held at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers.
Kiehne, who was featured last year in a New York Times article, spends many of his weekends performing dates throughout the country and in 2008 alone he and his band played concerts in 41 different states. Fiesta Georgia, however, will be the first time he's worked in the Peach State.
"I'm very excited because I've been through Atlanta a few times and I really like that big city," he said. "I'm from a very small town in New Mexico, so playing a show like this, before a potential crowd of 15,000-20,000 people, is a major step."
Although he's working his way up the entertainment ladder, Kiehne said his manager has helped open many doors for him with numerous television and radio appearances.
"I'm not famous or a celebrity, but I'd say 70 percent of the Hispanics in this country know who I am," he said. "I usually play out every weekend, primarily as the opening act for well-known Mexican singers and groups."
As a veteran performer, Kiehne has found acceptance with Hispanic crowds throughout the country and said he's never encountered an audience that didn't like him based on his heritage.
"Audiences have accepted me from the beginning," he said. "They can tell I know the language and that I understand their music. I have a slight Gringo accent when I speak Spanish, but when I sing, there's no accent. Audiences who love their culture and their music know that my heart is in this music."
Kiehne said that an organizer of Fiesta Georgia saw him croon in Los Angeles several years ago and contacted him three months ago about his availability for the festival.
"We love to do festivals, although we also play a lot in clubs and bars," said Kiehne, who added he'll also perform on Sunday night at the Coco Loco nightclub in Buckhead. "I enjoy festivals because of the family atmosphere, and there should be a great crowd (in Conyers)."
The father of three children ranging in age from 3 to 6, Kiehne released his first album, "Algo SucediÃ³," about 18 months ago and is set to drop his second album, "Besando tu Piel" (roughly translated: "Kissing Your Skin") sometime in the next month.
"I hope to be able to get a couple of hits off the new album that will take me up to being a headliner," said Kiehne, who added he recorded the album recently in Los Angeles. "My newest album is a little different in that it's like Mexican country music. It's all in Spanish with Mexican instruments, like the accordion, but we've also got some electric guitars on there, too. I think if Anglos got a chance to listen to it, they'd really like it."
Kiehne said that before his immersion into Latin music, he enjoyed country, rock (particularly the Eagles, Aerosmith and Guns "n' Roses) and pop and added that depending on the venue, his concerts are a blend of original songs and Hispanic standards.
"We can get away with a few originals," said Kiehne, who wrote four songs on his first album and one on the follow-up. "But we mostly play covers and familiar songs that the audience wants to hear."
El Gringo's albums are available via digital delivery systems like iTunes and Amazon, and samples of his work can be heard at www.myspace.com/elgringo7 or www.elgringomusica.net.