NO DEPRESSION | by Linda Ray, #56 March-April 2005

HACIENDA BROTHERS: Points for Pennmanship

Chris Gaffney is recording his fifth or maybe sixth perfect vocal take of the Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham classic, "It Tears Me Up". Rasping, gorgeous and heartbreakingly soulful, it's still not what he's after. It's past 10 p.m. on the tenth and last day of this Tucson recording session for a future Hacienda Brothers release, currently envisioned as a tribute to Penn. Gaffney re-records the phrase he wants, and nails it.

Penn produced the Hacienda brother's self-titled debut, released February 22 on Koch Records. The experience of working with him is still rich in Gaffney's mind.

"Dan Penn is the most beautiful human being you'll ever want to meet," he says. "He's been around a lot of great singers and he's a great singer himself. It's not intimidating, but I know his history, so you've gotta be on your P's and Q's. What did I learn? How to make things right and not give up on something. If it could've had a better vocal, he encouraged that out of me, as he did with everybody who played an instrument."

The admiration is mutual. Asked how he came to work with the fledgling Haciendas, fronted by longtime Dave Alvin sideman Gaffney and the Paladins' Dave Gonzalez, Penn says, "Chris Gaffney's voice, number one. But also, just the whole playing and the style they were getting. It didn't sound like Nashville or L.A., it sounded like Tucson.

"I heard something I'd never heard quite exactly the same, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I love Dave's singing, too, and the guitar playing. I love where they're coming from, where they want to go."

Even the learning went both ways. "I've never been the biggest country fan," Penn admits, "although I've heard stuff I like. But a lot of it I never did really care for." Then, with substantial understatement, the co-author of "Dark End of the Street" and such R&B hits as "I'm Your Puppet" says, "I was mostly a rhythm & blues person, you know."

So the cross-country trek to his first Tucson recoding session was a musical awakening of sorts for him, too. "They love old country and soul music, so I walked in and they were playing a lot of really old country, Johnny Paycheck and stuff, and I enjoyed what that was."

The result is as hard to imagine as it is fine to hear. There's a new Dan Penn tune, a Mel Tillis cover, and a Penn co-write with Gonzalez, who otherwise likes to imagine he's writing songs for Waylon Jennings. Instrumentation involves exquisitely tasteful pedal steel, a little accordion, and the ghost of Duane Eddy in some guitar parts.

Penn's longtime collaborator Spooner Oldham plays keys, Jim Lauderdale and Bekka Bramlett sing some backing vocals, and Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns adds trumpet, including a soul-mariachi turn. Gaffney's voice and phrasing find the common ground between Wynn steward and Lloyd Price. The final result retains the vibe where many of the tunes were first recorded. Penn has dubbed it "western soul."

Perhaps fittingly, it was more or less conceived in the back of a hot rod. Dave Gonzalez had met Penn at a festival in the Netherlands in 1999, and the pair found common ground in their love of old cars. The two kept in touch about jalopies, carburetors and the like; eventually, Tucson promoter Jeb Schoonover persuaded Gonzalez to send Penn the Hacienda brothers' demo. "He's always instigating something cool to happen," Gonzalez says of Schoonover, a longtime friend to the two Hacienda bandmates.

Both Gaffney and Gonzalez spent their growing-up years in Tucson. They met Schoonover through their respective work with Dave Alvin and the Paladins. It was Schoonover who encouraged Gonzalez and Gaffney to work together.

"I write a lot of songs besides the type I play in the Paladins," Gonzalez says. "I write soul tunes, country songs, love songs and ballads, and other stuff that I can't do in a guitar-based, heavy-duty, rockabilly blues trio. Working with Chris, my boundaries of melody and chord structure and song content - there are no boundaries, none at all."

The pair also collaborated on songwriting. "We're good for each other. Like Felix and Oscar," Gonzalez quips.

Gonzalez is as painstaking as Gaffney in pursuit of the perfect take. "I'm a record collector, a record fanatic, and I'm a sound fanatic," he says. "To have an opportunity to work with [people] who all fell the same way as I do about old records, traditional-sounding records, I love it."

"I try to do that - convey that old-school message - but make it so people walking down the street can go, 'I like that little melody, that kind of reminds me of...'" western soul?