Right Between the Ditches
The Hacienda Brothers tap soul legend Dan Penn to bridge the western-soul divide
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 the two in the '60s. 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 accomplishments, 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. To record their latest album, the band retreated with Penn to their home base—and Gaffney's hometown—Tucson, Ariz. "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."
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. 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."