Not From Manchester: Hacienda Brothers Gaffney and Gonzales work the dark side of the street.
Right Between the Ditches
The Hacienda Brothers tap soul legend Dan Penn to bridge the western-soul divide
By Paul Davis
A quick glance at the Hacienda Brothers, with their 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots, and you'd be excused for expecting them to launch into a set of straight-up honky-tonk rave-ups. But as soon as the band starts up one of its slow burn grooves and lead vocalist Chris Gaffney launches into his soaring blue-eyed soul, it's not hard to understand why the band sees itself as a soul band first and foremost.
The Hacienda Brothers are certainly not the first to highlight the ways in which soul and country & western music can complement one another--Ray Charles was experimenting with mixing the two in the '60s with his "Modern Sounds in Country and Western" series. Still, few have stepped up and attempted such a synthesis since then, and the band's producer and co-songwriter won't have any of that revisionist talk that the two styles make an easy match. Dan Penn, the legendary soul songwriter who wrote classics such as "Dark End of the Street" and "I'm Your Puppet" for the likes of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, bristles at the suggestion that soul and country music are more alike than not. "I've heard people say that county and soul are the same thing, but I'm not buying it--they sound so different. Some songs just don't have country in them," Penn states. "When I hear people saying that country and soul are similar, I say, 'Well, why don't you write a soul song?'"
Despite his musical accomplish-ments, Penn is no Clive Davis-like impresario, quietly pulling the strings behind a group of vacant faces made for the stage and photo shoot. Though Penn presides over the Hacienda Brothers proceedings, having recorded both their previous album and their new release, What's Wrong With Right, the band members boast impressive résumés in their own right. Along with Gaffney, who also performs in Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, primary songwriter and lead guitarist Dave Gonzales is an alumni of the Paladins. While Penn operates almost as a sixth member of the band, he tries to be as hands-off as possible during their recording sessions.
"Mixing country and soul was all their idea. They call it western soul and that's just what I think it is," Penn states. "All I try to do is hold them between the ditches. This isn't a manufactured product--it's all their thing and they just happened to invite me along." Penn forged a relationship with Gonzales early in the band's career, when the two met at a festival in Holland. "I met Dave over in Holland the last time Spooner [Oldham, Penn's songwriting partner] and I were over there," Penn says. "I ran into him and he seemed like a nice fella, so we swapped numbers and I liked what they were doing."
To record their latest album, the band retreated with Penn to their home base--and Gaffney's hometown--Tucson, Ariz. For Gaffney, the opportunity to work with Penn a second time was an honor. "Working with Dan is smooth as silk--the guy's a pro," says Gaffney. "I have ultimate respect for the guy. I'm not much of a listener, but when he speaks, I pay attention." Penn's approach to recording is as old-school as his songwriting. A firm believer in traditional recording approaches, he was emphatic that the band perform and record together in person, not relying on modern technologies that enable some producers and artists to record an album without ever sharing the same booth space. "I like a laid-back, organic environment," Penn says. "I'm not one for piecemealing records together--I like getting that air going between the band. I've been through all of my formulas and discarded most of them, so I don't say a lot when they're cutting and just let things happen. I like doing it analog and mixing it down--not just putting things into ProTools."
Gaffney, who serves as the group's frontman, readily admits to not sharing the songwriting work ethic of Gonzales and Penn. "Dave seems to be writing everyday, which is a good thing," Gaffney says. "When I write a song, it's in my head and down in 20 minutes, and that doesn't count the ones I forget. Before I got into the music business I was a boxer, so the computer in my head just doesn't work right--I lose a lot of things writing that way." Though he collaborates with Gonzales on occasion, and Gonzales co-wrote a number of songs with Penn on What's Wrong With Right, Gaffney has found that he works best alone.
"Collaborating on songs can be really rough--you don't want to write your ideas down and have to hear, 'That's bullshit,'" Gaffney says. Still, he's trying to get over that block and co-write with Gonzales more. "It's the fear of rejection when you collaborate that really scares people, I think. So when we sit down together, he tells me to go off and think about something, and we pull it all together from there."
As the band embarks on another one of its marathon tours, Gaffney finds the Hacienda Brothers have tightened up and honed their abilities with a schedule that has in the past exceeded 300 shows in one year. "We don't really do any writing on the road," he says. "When you're on the road you're just trying to be civil to each other, you just try to make everything go smooth. The good thing is we now know what we can do--there's no more guesswork with the Hacienda Brothers."
Despite the unmistakable western twang in the band's sound, Gaffney's musical roots, like Penn's, also lean closer to the soul side of the spectrum. "As a boy, I was much more into soul music than western, as well as a lot of Mexican music," Gaffney says. "I grew up in Tucson and then we moved to Compton--that isn't where you get country & western songs. I guess as you get older you just play whatever you want. Tony Joe White did this sort of thing, but he's more of a funkmaster. I draw inspiration from all sorts of performers--Dave Alvin isn't a soul singer, but some of his songs are absolutely killer."
In a time when popular soul music has become synonymous with sequenced electronics and unyielding vocal histrionics, it seems oddly appropriate that a group of steel-guitar wielding cowboys would team up with one of the legends of the form and bring it back to its roots. A traditionalist to the core, Penn has no time for what passes for modern soul music.
"They should call what's on the radio something else," says Penn. "I ain't heard no R&B on the radio since the '60s or '70s, so I don't listen to the radio much nowadays." Strongly opinionated, Penn is a soul man to the core--despite his rural roots, Penn says he hasn't historically been a fan of country music. "You know, I may be a country guy, but I've never really liked country music," says Penn, crediting the Hacienda Brothers with subverting his skepticism and selling him on the western-soul hybrid. "I see some problems in trying to pull country and soul together, but Gaffney can really belt it out. What can I say--they made a believer out of me."
The Hacienda Brothers play with Blueprint on Friday, July 7, at 9pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Highway 9, Felton. Tickets are $8 advance or $10 at the door; 831.603.2294.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.