Hacienda Brothers explores soul of the west

T.J. Simon, March 2005

When the topic of American roots music is discussed, classic soul is rarely given proper credit as an essential element of our nation's cultural fabric. This didn't dissuade Dave Gonzalez of The Paladins and Chris Gaffney of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men from joining forces to explore the links between country and soul under the moniker of The Hacienda Brothers.

The band's self-titled debut dropped in February on the Koch Nashville label. "When I was a kid, I remember learning to play guitar to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave records," Gonzalez, 42, recalls during a phone interview from his California office. "My dad had country records, and I'd play guitar to those, too. I discovered that the scales of the songs were the same, but country was just twangier."

For his part, Gaffney, 55, is no stranger to the marriage of soul and country. On his 1995 album "Losers Paradise," he and Lucinda Williams recorded a duet of "Cowboys to Girls," a 1968 R&B hit originally recorded by The Intruders.

The Hacienda Brothers album has been a topic of discussion and a labor of love for Gonzalez and Gaffney for many years. "This is exactly the album I wanted to make because I love Western music, and I love R&B," Gaffney says via telephone.

The pair met in the early 1980s when playing at a famous Southern California honky-tonk, The Palomino. Gonzalez was fronting his long time rockabilly blues trio, The Paladins, and Gaffney was playing accordion behind Dave Alvin. The two immediately became friends as a result of their love for roots music and shared Latin American heritage.

Gaffney went on to play accordion on The Paladins' number "Rain Rain" as well supporting emerging artists produced by Gonzalez.

But it took the intervention of mutual friend and former Tucson country radio D.J. Jeb Schoonover to bring about the formation of the Hacienda Brothers. "He was really the instigator," Gonzalez explains. "Finally, after a couple years of Jeb's persistence, we agreed to write a couple songs together in Tucson."

After four songs recorded as a demo, the pair knew they were onto something special. They realized that in order to record an album blending country and soul, they would have to put together a dream team.

The first step was finding the perfect producer, and the number one draft pick was Dan Penn, a man whose songwriting and production defined the Muscle Shoals sound.

Penn has written hits for everyone from Ronnie Milsap to Aretha Franklin. His famous songs include "The Letter" by The Box Tops, as well as soul mainstays "Dark End of the Street" and "Do-Right Woman, Do-Right Man." If the Hacienda Brothers were seeking a producer with instant credibility in the worlds of country and soul, Penn was the man for the job.

Fortunately, Gonzalez and Penn were acquaintances since meeting at a European music festival several years before. They both shared a common passion for music and a love of American hot-rods.

When the time was right, Gonzalez lured Penn to the Hacienda Brothers project by leveraging their mutual love of restoring classic cars.

"As it turned out, the motor in my DeSoto blew up, and I had to replace it," Gonzalez recalls. "I ended up writing Dan a note telling him I scored a killer motor from the Desoto club, and by the way, here's my new demo."

Two or three days later, Gonzalez heard back from Penn who immediately wanted to be part of the project. Rather than recording the album at Penn's Nashville studios, he felt strongly that the band could maintain the southwestern flavor of the demo if the recording took place in Tucson.

Working with Penn opened many creative doors for the Hacienda Brothers. Between recording sessions, Gonzalez and Penn took every opportunity to retreat into the mountains to talk about nature, cars and the mysteries of the desert. "We were looking out over these big lonesome vistas at all the cactus," Gonzalez remembers. "We started strumming the guitars together, and that's how we wrote 'Looking for Loneliness.'"

Along with "Looking for Loneliness," the album features a handful of originals mixed with some obscure, but compelling, covers. Gonzalez did the lion's share of the original songwriting for the record, and most of the songs feature Gaffney's unique and soulful voice.

After having been a lead singer with The Paladins for 23 years, was it difficult for Gonzalez to turn the microphone over to Gaffney for most of this joint venture?

"Absolutely not," Gonzalez maintains. "Chris' voice is the best instrument we have in our band. I sing a little bit, but I write a lot. I always wanted to expand the boundaries of my music by adding another singer, a piano part and a horn section. The Hacienda Brothers allows for that."

Another element of the band's studio all-star team arrived when Penn's long-time friend Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns agreed to take part in the project by adding trumpets to two tracks. His signature sound provided a Mariachi vibe to the striking instrumental "Saguaro," a number Gaffney describes as "an epic Western song."

Many of the original numbers penned for the Hacienda Brothers debut were written using a "What if..." approach.

On "Railed," for example, Gonzalez explains, "Chris and I were playing a lot in a beer joint called the Doll Hut in Southern California, and we used to jam on this song. It came from idea I had - What if Freddie King went to Bakersfield? That was my whole concept of the tune - it's kinda like a Freddie King tune with a Bakersfield country twist."

The track "Leavin' On My Mind" came into existence as a result of Gonzalez and Gaffney's mutual admiration for Waylon Jennings. "I had always dreamed of backing up Waylon," Gonzalez says. "I pretended that I was writing a song for Waylon with the intention of pitching it to him in Nashville."

Willie Nelson's stylistic fingerprints appear on "Walkin' on My Dreams." Gonzalez says, "I wrote that song as if I was going to pitch it to Willie as a b-side."

Nelson's songwriting style also served to unlock the door for Gaffney to write "Seven Little Numbers."

As Gonzalez explains, "For about a year, Gaff kept telling me he had an idea for a song called 'Don't Make That Call,' and the idea wouldn't get out of his head. I asked him what Willie Nelson would do with the theme. I suggested that Willie would write a song about the matchbook that the numbers were written on, and the next day, he had the first verse written. By the end of the day, he had it all arranged and completed."

A live mainstay of Gaffney's old band, The Cold Hard Facts, titled "Turn To Grey" also appears on the Hacienda Brothers debut. "It's a great country rock song with interesting words," Gonzalez says. "I heard a live version of The Cold Hard Facts playing it, and we talked Gaffney into letting us redo it for the record. My dad said it's his favorite song on the record." Penn also contributed background vocals to the track.

The covers chosen for the album also come from a variety of sources.

For example, Melba Montgomery's "He's Gone" was rearranged with a sex change and became "She's Gone." Montgomery's brother, Carl, happened to write "Six Days on the Road," a live staple of the Hacienda Brothers and, for that matter, every country bar band in America. Rather than re-record the classic, Gonzalez and Gaffney chose to cover a more obscure Carl Montgomery number, "South of Lonesome."

"We had to have a truck driving song on there," Gaffney says.

The track "Mental Revenge" was written by Mel Tillis, but made famous by Waylon Jennings. "When we made our first demo, we needed an electric guitar, rocked-up tune, so when we sent it out, it wouldn't be all slow songs," Gonzalez says. "I think it really showcases the grit of Chris' singing."

From a creative point of view, Gonzalez is noticeably rejuvenated in a manner that only a side project or new venture can do. "I've got suitcases full of songs on tape and in my head. Being in a trio for 23 years can be limiting. It became very stifling to my creativity," he explains.

Gonzalez continues, "If there was any song idea that I thought might be good - a hook line or guitar lick - I didn't shun it off. I chased it because there are no boundaries in the Hacienda Brothers. That's what's so awesome about this project."

All indications are that Gaffney will continue as Dave Alvin's main sidekick while still pursuing the vision of the Hacienda Brothers.

But the future of The Paladins is more of a question mark. The band's eighth record came out in 2003 with a time-consuming tour that exceeded 200 shows in one year's time.

"I've been trying for many years to get The Paladins expand the boundaries," Gonzalez confides. "Now, they're way on the back burner. After a while, it's just hard to be a trio. When I was writing with Chris, this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I finally told the guys that I was going to be busy with the Hacienda Brothers, so we've wound things down quite a bit."

"I'll still play a few festivals later in the year with The Paladins," he adds.

For its part, Koch Nashville is bullish on the band. The label has reportedly asked the Hacienda Brothers to generate three albums over the next two years. And with Gonzalez' prolific songwriting abilities, it shouldn't be much of a problem.

Gaffney claims amazement at the inexhaustible nature of Gonzalez' songwriting gifts. "You've got to understand that Dave sleeps with his guitar, and he's writing all the time," Gaffney says.

Another refreshing part of the project is the lack of expectations Gaffney and Gonzalez are met with when playing shows under the new moniker. A national tour for the Hacienda Brothers is set to launch in March including a high-profile stop at Austin's South-by-Southwest music festival, historically a proving ground for young musical acts. And despite the duo's 50-plus combined years in the music industry, the Hacienda Brothers project has served to make the two veterans feel like rookies once again. Gonzalez explains, "We're just a brand new band, you know?"

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com