OC WEEKLY | by Jim Washburn, Vol. 10 #31 April 8-14, 2005

Western Soul

Everyone's hot and bothered about the Hacienda Brothers

And so it was in Chris Gaffney's twilight years that the world finally lay at his feet, a black '99 Cadillac DeVille in his driveway as the emblem of his accomplishments, while critics, fans and fellow musicians sang the hosannas of his newish band, the Hacienda Brothers. (Joe Ely calls the band "perfect.") Where once Gaffney rarely left the county and gigged so little he had to work day jobs scraping mannequins off boat hulls or somesuch, now he's living on the road, touring from Hialeah to Helsinki, fronting the most buzzed-about roots band of the new millennium.

How does he like it?

"I really wish I was younger. I can still be 10 times the tiger when I'm onstage, but getting out of the van is a little more difficult than it used to be," the 55-year-old Costa Mesan related over the phone from Tucson, Arizona, where the Brothers, just returned from Austin's South by Southwest, were finishing their second album.

Gaffney's chief hermano de hacienda is Paladins guitarist Dave Gonzalez. The two first met at a 1980s Palomino gig, then played together at a friend's birthday party two years ago, and it went from there, with steel guitarist Dave Berzansky, bassist Hank Maninger and drummer Dave Daniel now in the fold.

The group's self-titled debut album (on Koch Records) is a wondrous lot of gristle and twang, an amalgam of country and R&B music that producer Dan Penn has dubbed "western soul." That's legendary producer Dan Penn, by the way, responsible for writing and/or recording some of the most soulful music ever (Aretha's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," everybody's "Dark End of the Street," et al.), who says it was Gaffney's voice that attracted him to the project.

On the CD and at their early shows, the band certainly sounded earnest, with every six-string-bass riff and pedal-steel slurp saying, "Hey, we really mean it." The album may be the best thing to happen to country music in years, but it's a bittersweet triumph for those of us who are longtime fans of Gaffney's hometown band, the Cold Hard Facts. As brooding as Fred Neil's "I've Got a Secret" sounds on the album, when the Cold Hard Facts did it, the wheels left the ground, and they flew the song, as lonesome and beautiful as a Piper Cub in the night sky.

No one knows when they'll play together again, much less even talk on the phone, but Gaffney insists, "I could never lay the Cold Hard Facts to rest. I love them far too much for that." (Paladins fans should also take heart that Gonzalez considers that band to be merely on hiatus as well.)

It's another kind of cold hard fact that, at this point in Gaffney's career, his band simply couldn't afford to hit the road with him. Instead, he's been touring twice as hard, both with the Hacienda Brothers and as a member of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men.

The new album, due in the fall, is composed entirely of covers of the band's favorite songs, including numbers by Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich and two Penn-penned tunes, "Cry Like a Baby" and "It Tears Me Up." Even Gaffney's wife, Julie, who is not easily impressed by her husband, says his singing on it gives her goose bumps.

The current album has some inspired covers as well (check the 1963-sounding version of Dallas Frazier's "She's Gone"); a song Penn wrote for Gaffney, "The Years That Got Away"; and some strong originals from Gonzalez, Gaffney and band mates.

Gonzalez has mentioned in interviews that, while musically akin, he and Gaffney are otherwise as different as night and day. We asked Gaffney to elaborate.

"Let's start at the top: when I'm done playing, I'm done playing," he says. "I don't hang around and talk about gear. I completely put it to rest. What I jones for is a nice fight on TV, while Dave sleeps with his guitar.

"And Dave is nuts about jalopies. I don't give a fuck for cars, aside from if they start and stop. I do like my '99 sedan Deville, though. I'm looking forward to being home long enough to drive it."