The Hacienda Brothers and production legend Dan Penn make sweet honky-tonk
In the able arms of the Hacienda Brothers, the gorgeous genre of western soul comes to full desert flower. “Ray Price and Percy Sledge, Charlie Rich and Solomon Burke, Johnny Paycheck and James Carr,” said Hacienda Brother Dave Gonzales, “it’s all honky-tonk and soul. With [singer/accordionist Chris Gaffney] and I, it all comes from the same place.”
For the baby-boomer generation that grew up on the AM radio that spun both legendary country and soul artists, that place is right in between legendary producer/writer Dan Penn’s golden ears. Penn is the elusive character that writer Peter Guralnick, in his 1986 book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, proclaimed “the secret hero of the book” for his part in creating the 1960s Southern soul music that emanated from Memphis, Tenn., and Muscle Shoals, Ala. Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Booker T. and the MGs all benefited from Penn’s gift—just like the Haciendas are now. Penn looms like a father figure, an angel above the band’s music.
“Dan Penn is the greatest producer. A complete ‘feel’ cat. He just knows how to put a song in the groove. He’s an R&B guy, but he’s from the country,” Gonzales gushed.
Gonzales recalled his first meeting with Penn in 1998, with his former band, the Paladins. “We were at a festival in Holland,” he said. “The promoter took me over to his table. I was speechless.”
Right then, Penn clued him in. “I got three rules,” he said. “I don’t do nothin’ over the phone, I don’t do nothin’ over the mail, and I don’t do nothin’ over the Internet. I’m into hangin’ out.”
Hang out they did, producing the Hacienda Brothers’ debut album in 2004. On the band’s current release, What’s Wrong with Right, Penn and Gonzales continue blending their writing skills. The title track is deep country opining, not a political observation. The Brothers nail two of Penn’s chestnuts, “Cry like a Baby” and the wrenching “It Tears Me Up.” Pedal steel and B-3 organ mesh in gorgeous groove on another classic, “Cowboys to Girls,” and in a Tex-Mex take on Charlie Rich’s “Rebound.” Gaffney offers the very personal “If Daddy Don’t Sing Danny Boy.” The album’s instrumental closer, “Son of Saguaro,” gives elegiac spaghetti-Western regality to the tough and tender heartbreak of the Hacienda Brothers’ committed sound.
“We didn’t plan to have a band,” said Gonzales of the Hacienda Brothers’ decidedly noncommittal origins. “We just dug hanging out and always loved the same music.”
Gaffney, with his marvelously resonant rough-hewn voice and a Clint Eastwood glint in his eyes, had been part of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men and his own band, the Cold Hard Facts, before becoming a Hacienda Brother. Gonzales, with his bright, cutting Telecaster, led San Diego’s Paladins. Both musicians were living in Southern California but made the journey to attend a mutual friend’s 40th-birthday party in Tucson, Ariz.—a town that has a wealth of excellent secondhand record shops.
Gonzales had met the friend, music promoter Jeb Schoonover, years earlier. At one late-night session of nonstop record listening, Schoonover, now the Brothers’ manager, recalled, “Dave and I started off with the saddest of sad honky-tonkers, only to end up listening to a string of down-and-out soul singers. We looked at each other and said, ‘Man if only a band could play what we’ve been listening to tonight! Who would be the singer?”
In a heartbeat, both said, “Chris Gaffney.”
The dream became reality at Schoonover’s birthday bash, where both players found their shared desert-home blood ties. “My dad’s family is from Tucson, and Chris went to junior high there,” Gonzales said.
Ultimately, the Southwest’s wide-open space and saguaros also called to Penn. He took a hiatus from his beloved “Auto Ranch” and his demo studio inside the 1963 silver Airstream trailer parked on his property in Vernon, Ala. to produce both Hacienda Brothers albums. “It’s weird,” said fellow gearhead Gonzales, laughing. “His backyard looks just like mine.”