TIME Latest Outlet to Catch Up to ‘El Gringo Mariachi’

He looks a bit like Conan O’Brien, plays the acoustic guitar just like Coco, and is right around the same age as the TBS late night host (47). But in the case of this pale faced, red-headed entertainer, the audience is the much smaller, localized East LA constituency of Mariachi music consumers.

TIME writer Jens Erik Gould is the latest reporter to share the unlikely strumming success of one Matthew Stoneman (pictured), and really, it’s a story that never gets old. New Hampshire native Stoneman goes by the stage name of Mateo and is currently being filmed for an upcoming documentary about his life. His singing career tracks back to a most unlikely mid-1980s starting point:

State prison helped make Stoneman the
man he is today. A pianist, he had come to Los Angeles in 1983 and soon aimed for fame with music he composed in the style of Elton John. When that didn’t work out, he bought a studio that produced rap. He got behind on his payments, so he hooked up with a group of criminals from Sinaloa, Mexico to rob a music store…

In a futile attempt to escape, Stoneman jumped off a 20-foot ledge onto a freeway, breaking both ankles, one leg, one arm and part of his back. He served four-and-a-half years and learned his lesson. In jail, Stoneman wrote songs and performed in Spanish for the inmates. When he got out, he started busking on the streets and dubbed himself “El Gringo Mariachi.”

Stoneman tells the reporter he is currently trying to save money to finance a music recording trip… to Cuba.

[Photo credit: Claudio Cambon]