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Fans worry over ranchera icon Vicente Fernández, who remains hospitalized

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

He's known as El Rey, the king of Mexican music, the country's greatest living singer. For more than half a century, Vicente Fernandez has provided the soundtrack for Mexican life to nearly every corner of the Spanish-speaking world. The 81-year-old royal of ranchera music has been hospitalized for more than two months. And as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, fans are worried about his fate and the future of the music he defined.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICENTE FERNANDEZ SONG, "EL REY")

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The lyrics of one of ranchera's most famous ballads takes on a more urgent tone these days, given Vicente Fernandez's current health.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

VICENTE FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: "The day I die," he sings, "you will cry, cry and cry."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Back in 1974, when Fernandez popularized the song "El Rey," he was singing of a scorned love. But since taking a fall this summer at his ranch outside Guadalajara and the near-daily rumors of his demise, his fans and fellow musicians have been mourning.

RIGOBERTO ALFARO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There is a lot that makes Fernandez great but nothing as much as his voice, that booming voice," says 86-year-old Rigoberto Alfaro Rodriguez, who for decades arranged dozens of Fernandez's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Always dressed in an impeccable mariachi or charro suit with a huge, wide-brimmed sombrero and a pistol on his hip, Fernandez loved to show off that voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: In concerts, he'd lower his mic and belt out the ending of a song unamplified to thunderous applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: Fernandez has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, starred in dozens of films, won three Grammys, eight Latin Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

ARTURO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He has left us with a great musical legacy," says Arturo Vargas, the longtime guitarist with the famous group Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, a legacy that was hard-won. Breaking into the big leagues took Fernandez years. He spent his early career singing on street corners and in restaurants, shunned by record producers. But as other great Mexican crooners passed from the scene, space opened for the mustachioed cowboy from a ranch outside Guadalajara.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "His mark is significant. He'll always be among Mexican music's icons," Vargas tells me as musicians warm up around us backstage at a recent International Mariachi Festival in Guadalajara, Jalisco.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

KAHN: This night, Guadalajara's Philharmonic Orchestra grandly sits behind Vargas' 14-member mariachi band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIACHI VARGAS DE TECALITLAN: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Seats went for as high as a hundred dollars a ticket. It's quite an impressive price, given mariachi's humble origins, says Jon Clark.

JON CLARK: It was the poor people's music.

KAHN: Clark, now 69, has been playing, studying and writing about mariachi music for decades. He says while its roots probably go back to the arrival of Hernan Cortes on Mexico's shores - the Spanish conquistador traveled with troubadours - historians didn't pay much attention to the mostly rural and Indigenous music. He says that's until after the Mexican Revolution.

CLARK: When the Indigenous culture became exalted in contrast to the Porfirio Diaz regime, where everything was Eurocentric. But by then, a lot of the history had been lost.

KAHN: Many towns throughout Mexico, especially in Vicente Fernandez's home state of Jalisco, take credit for mariachi's origin. Cocula, not far from Guadalajara, calls itself the cradle of mariachi, sporting a tiny museum and roving musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINIGNG)

KAHN: On Sundays, the local mariachi school's youth group plays at noon mass right after they cross the street, still in their finest brass-studded suits and play in the town's placita.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Vicente Fernandez's tunes are always a favorite with the crowd strolling the public park or sitting on benches, enjoying a leisurely Sunday with family. Many join in singing unabashedly, pitch and tune be damned.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: While still a sentimental favorite, the genre has lost appeal with younger generations. Fernandez scorned crossover artists, even his own son, who produces many pop songs along with mariachi favorites. And that worries 52-year-old Magdalena Vazquez.

MAGDALENA VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Frankly, music today has no message," she says as she sells Tupperware and COVID masks right off Cocula's Plaza. Her small stand sits in front of the city's huge bust honoring Vicente Fernandez.

VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I have two daughters, and I asked them, how will a boy romance you, win you over, with what song," she asks. Her husband hides his face in his hands and laughs. It's those hardcore traditional older fans that kept Fernandez's music alive for more than five decades. Fernandez has run afoul of younger generations more woke than their parents. In January, he gave a half-hearted apology after images emerged of him groping a fan's breast as they posed for a picture. In 2019, he said he refused a liver transplant, fearing it could have come from a homosexual. But for the die-hards, Fernandez's legacy survived such transgressions. He's always professed that he was motivated by his devoted audience, as he said in a farewell concert in Mexico City in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Appearing to choke back tears, he says, "it was always about your affection, your respect and your applause" and, as he sings in the song "El Rey," not about fame or wealth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Fernandez's music will live on. Reportedly, there are dozens of previously recorded songs to be released upon his death, allowing him to remain, as he sings here, the king.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL REY")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Cocula, Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF VICENTE FERNANDEZ SONG, "VOLVER, VOLVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.