Music Middle-age crazy

Hacienda Brothers find a country-soul fusion in the Arizona desert

Hacienda Brothers: an inspired side project for Dave Gonzalez, front left, and Chris Gaffney.

A couple of years ago, Dave Gonzalez and Chris Gaffney rounded up a few musicians and got together to play a birthday party gig. Gonzalez, the leader of the Paladins, and Gaffney, a Dave Alvin sideman and leader of the cult-fave Cold Hard Facts, were old friends who'd long been part of SoCal's tight-knit Americana underground. They met in 1988 at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood and occasionally talked about collaborating, but never followed through.

The light-lipped, low-key Gaffney doesn't impress easily, but when he jammed with Gonzalez, he knew they'd found something worth sustaining. "I liked it 'cause Gonzalez is energetic," Gaffney says. "He's pretty cool that way. And he's a writing machine, so it's easier for me. When we collaborate, I can stick in words here and there and make them work, but he's writing all the time."

For Gonzalez, the Hacienda Brothers represented a liberation from the raucous rockabilly of the Paladins, a chance for him to expose subtler sentiments and quieter tones than ever before.

The duo's self-titled debut CD, on the Nashville-based KOCH Records, makes middle-age sound like anything but a period of relaxed contentment. These are songs from the harried frontlines of regret, a place where bitterness and isolation are your only reliable companions. Musically, the record evokes the locomotion of Buck Owens' Bakersfield sound, with Gonzalez' rubbery guitar solos making him a Don Rich to Gaffney's Owens.

Like any great team, Hacienda Brothers succeed because they bolster each member's weaknesses or areas of vulnerability. Gonzalez takes pressure off Gaffney by cranking out new songs at a rapid clip, and Gaffney relieves Gonzo of any insecurities about his own vocal prowess by bringing his grizzled pipes to the fore. Gaffney's wounded rasp is the perfect voice for this material, and he's abetted by blue-eyed-soul legend Dan Penn, who produced the record, wrote one song, and co-wrote another. They decided to record in Tucson, Arizona, Gaffney's childhood home, and a place where both Hacienda Brothers find inspiration.

"Dave had known Dan since meeting him in Europe years ago, so he decided just to send a demo to him," Gaffney says. "Penn liked it, so he went to Tucson and produced it."

As a writer and producer at American Studios in Memphis, and later, Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Penn developed a reputation for being a benign dictator, running sessions with clarity and precision. That extended to tiny details such as telling Alex Chilton to pronounce "airplane" as "air-o-plane" for the Box Tops' 1967 smash, "The Letter." Chilton has even said that his own manly growl on those Box Tops records was actually an imitation of Penn's voice. Gaffney, however, describes Penn as a sympathetic, artist-friendly producer.

"Penn is meticulous, and he's hands-on, but he's not a slavedriver or anything," Gaffney says. "He's pretty gentle and he's really laid-back. He's always got arrangement ideas, things you wouldn't think of."

That included melding a Stax-styled horn section with weeping pedal steel for the brooding "Looking For Loneliness." Penn coined the term "Western soul" for the Hacienda Brothers' music, and Gaffney says, "That `fusion` is what we're mainly shooting for. I don't want to be categorized as just a Western band."

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The album's finest track, "Walkin' On My Dreams," covers similar ground, but cuts even deeper. A dark Gonzalez-penned ballad with jazzy chord changes reminiscent of Willie Nelson's "Nightlife," it achieves greatness through the presence of piercing R&B organ and Gaffney's desperate vocal ache:

"I guess I'd rather hear your lies/than the silence of goodbye."

Gaffney earned his musical stripes playing in a bar band that backed legends such as Webb Pierce and Ferlin Husky. While some might imagine that Gaffney learned the honky-tonk ropes by observing these heavyweights at close range, he quickly debunks that theory.

"Webb Pierce was an enormous drunk, so I just tried to hang on," he says. "I didn't really learn a lot from him, other than I knew the key would change. Every day was a brand new day. I mean, there's only one key that you can sing 'There Stands the Glass' in, and it's not E-flat."

He has considerably fonder memories of his time with Husky.

"He was a perfect gentleman," Gaffney recalls. "One thing I learned from him was pacing, 'cause he put on a real good show. He would do a pirouette between songs."

Don't expect any pirouettes from either Gaffney or Gonzalez on their current tour, but the hardcore-country kick of their backing band should ably compensate. What started out as a casual side project is starting to gain the aura of permanence.

"We've got two more records to do for KOCH, one of which is nearly done," Gaffney says. "So we're going to be real busy."

By Gilbert Garcia

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