Hacienda Brothers: "Arizona Motel"

by Andrew S. Hughes- June 28, 2008

South Bend Tribune

Western Soul’s Blues

Singer’s death turns CD, tour into tribute.


Listening to The Hacienda Brothers’ new album feels like stumbling across a great movie late at night on television … 10 minutes before the credits role.

Unfortunately, “Arizona Motel” is the end of the tale for The Hacienda Brothers, and Dave Gonzalez’s summer tour amounts to rolling the credits for this story.

And Gonzalez knows exactly who gets top billing: Chris Gaffney, the band’s lead singer who died April 17 after a brief battle with liver cancer.

“We’re very, very lucky that we got to do what we did,” Gonzalez says Tuesday by telephone from Nashville, Tenn., on the afternoon after a benefit for Gaffney’s family. “I’m saddened. We had just finished the last record, ‘Arizona Motel.’ I mean, within a week of the final overdubs, Gaff got sick.”

For those of us coming in at the end of the story, the country-soul band formed in 2002-03 after 10 years of attempts by Gaffney and Gonzalez to work together at the urging of their mutual friend, Jeb Schoonover, a roots music promoter and former disc jockey who became the band’s manager.

“Chris Gaffney was very well known for being a great singer with a lot of bands in bars and having a few records out,” Gonzalez says. “I’m just terribly bummed and still in shock that he had to pass on, but I knew Chris for so many years as a fan, and wanting to write and work with him and help him out, that was the main goal Jeb and I had, to get him in the studio with the right band.”

Gaffney, who was 58 when he died, had been a fixture on the Southern California music scene for decades as a member of Dave Alvin’s Guilty Men, a backing singer for Hank Snow and Webb Pierce, and the leader of several bands, including Cold Hard Facts, while Gonzalez had been the leader of the rockabilly band The Paladins since the early ’80s.

“I was immediately drawn to Chris Gaffney’s voice,” Gonzalez says. “He sounded like a Western singer singing soul and a soul singer singing Western.”

After the two played together for the first time, they recorded a four-song demo and sent it to Dan Penn, the legendary soul producer and songwriter who wrote such classics as James Carr’s “The Dark End of the Street,” Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and Percy Sledge’s “It Tears Me Up.”

Penn agreed to produce their 2005 self-titled debut album and wrote “The Years That Got Away” for Gaffney to sing, and Gonzalez and Penn wrote “Looking for Loneliness.” Penn and Gonzalez also co-wrote “What’s Wrong With Right,” the title song for The Hacienda Brothers’ 2006 follow-up, which Penn also produced. The band then recorded a live album, “Music for Ranch and Town.”

The Hacienda Brothers, Gonzalez says, provided Gaffney with the stability of a full-time band and producer to support him, something the singer never had in the past.

“I had all the right contacts, and I knew that if all these people could just hear Chris, they would love him,” the guitarist says. “That’s why I sent the demo to Dan. I was nervous, but I knew that if Dan Penn could hear Chris’ voice, he would fall in love with it, and he did.”

Penn coined the term “Western soul” to describe the band’s sound, both as a reflection of how The Hacienda Brothers blend Country and Western with R&B music and of the band’s base in Tucson, Ariz., where both Gaffney and Gonzalez had childhood ties and where Schoonover was based.

“I thought that was spot-on,” Gonzalez says about the term. “We didn’t know what we were going to call it. We’re a Country and Western band at the core, but we love R&B and soul.”

For his part, The Hacienda Brothers liberated Gonzalez to write and play in styles other than The Paladins’ rockabilly and to cede the vocals to a singer he respected and enjoyed.

“I did as much as I could with (The Paladins) and enjoyed every minute of it, but as I started working with Chris Gaffney and Dan Penn, becoming more of a writer, I really needed to do more of that,” he says. “Also, I was just getting tired of the limitations of a trio. I got to the point where I did want a piano player and a steel guitar player, and I wanted to stay in the studio and do that.”

“Arizona Motel,” which was released Tuesday, comes, then, as a bittersweet release for Gonzalez and fans of root music.

The album puts the spotlight on Gaffney’s bruised baritone voice, particularly in the way he inhabits Gonzalez and Schoonover’s breathtaking “Ordinary Fool” and Gonzalez and Penn’s “Use to the Pain,” a gorgeous country-soul song that Gaffney sings with heartbreaking emotion and that ranks with some of Penn’s finest songs.

Other highlights on the album include the reflective country-rocker “A Lot of Days Are Gone” sung as duet by Gaffney and Gonzalez; Gaffney’s infectious “Soul Mountain”; the steel guitar-fueled, traditional-sounding country ballad “Look Into the Future”; the surf-Tex-Mex instrumental “Light It Again Charlie”; and the soldier’s tale “Uncle Sam’s Jail,” an understated country ballad set in Vietnam but applicable to Iraq; and Gonzalez and Penn’s other collaboration, “Break Free,” which recalls Penn’s “I’m Your Puppet” in rhythm and tone.

“It’s so heavy,” Gonzalez says about listening to “Arizona Motel” in general and “A Lot of Days Are Gone” in particular. “It’s a very, very different world and I’m saddened that my bro had to go away.”

Although they had finished recording the album before Gaffney was diagnosed, Gonzalez still needed to mix it for release.

“(It was) very difficult to listen to (the album) the last few months while we were mastering it,” he says. “I went into a tailspin. My whole world stopped and I didn’t have plans to get out of my house, but I finally just had to get in the car and get back out on the road.”

Now, Gonzalez has recruited a band of all-star musicians based in Austin, Texas, The Stone River Boys (featuring Benton Harbor-area native Dave Biller on pedal steel), that will perform Friday at The Livery as part of Gonzalez’s tour in support of “Arizona Motel.”

The Stone River Boys’ singer, Mike Barfield, also is in the band to handle some of Gaffney’s vocals.

“Vocally, I just can’t sing ’em,” Gonzalez says. “I’m just doing the ones that I can and a few that I kind of can and filling in the blanks with other material. … I’m pretty sure everybody who knows the band knows the tragedy of Gaff being gone and knows I can’t replace him, and Mike and I aren’t trying to replace him. We’re doing it out of tribute to him. Gaff was very proud of this record.”

Gonzalez is giving $5 from every CD he sells to Gaffney’s family to help pay his medical expenses, and also will give the late singer’s family his cut from the tour after it ends.

“I just have to do it,” Gonzalez says and adds that fans may contribute at the Web site www.helpgaff.com. “I’m out here this summer because we have this new record and I want people to get it. I’m just trying to get through the summer. It’s tough. I’ve had a lot of records out in the past, and I know you just have to get out there.”

After Monday’s benefit show in Nashville, Gonzalez spent Tuesday afternoon in Penn’s studio, from which he called for the interview.

“We’ve been down here all day just going over all kinds of memories,” he says. “We walked in here, and it just broke me down to see where (Gaffney) was standing and singing. It’s just heavy, very heavy.”