The histories of country and soul music have always run parallel. Both emerged from the lower-class environs of the Deep South in the early 20th century, blending varying amounts of blues, jazz, gospel, and Appalachian folk music to achieve two discrete concoctions whose surface distinctions — mainly bound to race — only served to mask identical hearts. Over the years, more musicians than can be named here have recognized these crucial similarities; from the "Cosmic American Music" of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin to Hank Williams and Willie Nelson covers slotted seamlessly into the running order of Al Green's picture-perfect 1973 Memphis soul album Call Me.
But no matter what path you take on the country-soul highway, one thing is inevitable: somewhere down that road, you're bound to encounter a man named Wallace Daniel Pennington — better known as Dan Penn.
A white songwriter and producer (and sometimes singer) from Alabama who later became synonymous with the pop music melting pot of Memphis, Tennessee, in many ways Dan Penn is country-soul. He co-wrote some of the best and most inherently "country" soul songs in history - including "Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman," two of the tracks which best solidified the early Burritos' boundless approach to American music as such.
To this day, if there's a record out there which occupies the middle ground between soul and country, chances are he's involved, in spirit if not in person. So it comes as a natural conclusion that Penn is behind the controls — and even taking some songwriting duties — for the latest album by Tucson, Arizona "Western Soul" quintet the Hacienda Brothers.
The album, What's Wrong with Right, is everything that a country-soul album should be; and I'd be lying if I said it didn't have at least a little to do with Penn. No less than three of the first five songs here bear a "D. Penn" co-writing credit, including the title track: a brand new song, written with Hacienda Brothers guitarist Dave Gonzalez, that demonstrates in less than three minutes just how much those two genres have in common. Yeah, the old boy's still got it. But let's not belabor the point too much, because without good musicians to interpret the material, even the best songwriting and production would fall flat. Fortunately, the Hacienda Brothers have what it takes to live up to the expectations of their esteemed producer.
While not traditionally beautiful in the manner of an Otis Redding or an Al Green, lead vocalist Chris Gaffney's throaty growl injects just the right amount of rough-hewn emotion into the lyrics of Penn/Oldham classics like "Cry Like a Baby" and "It Tears Me Up," producing two takes which stand up admirably next to the originals by Alex Chilton's Box Tops and Percy Sledge, respectively. And the band, an able mixture of guitar, pedal steel, keyboards, and the occasional accordion and trumpet, imaginatively expands on our concept of what "soulful" means, even when the material is closer to traditional honky-tonk, as on the Gonzalez original "The Last Time."
In fact, it's a testament to the Hacienda Brothers as a musical force all their own — not as the latest mouthpieces to give voice to Dan Penn's songs — but that some of the best songs on this record were produced by Gonzalez himself. The aforementioned "It Tears Me Up" in particular is a highlight, recasting the Southern Soul ballad with a dramatic, Southwestern-flavored horn arrangement befitting the band's Arizona roots. And if the liner notes are any indication, Penn was nowhere near the studio when they laid it down. On the strength of songs like these, and after two records with Penn at the helm, one is almost tempted to watch the band leave the nest next time around.
Because sure, it's cool to have a country-soul legend's name on your record and all, but there comes a time when every fledgling roots act has to stop paying respect to the past of their style of choice, and start looking to the future.
If What's Wrong with Right is any indication, the future is bright.