COUNTRY SOUL: The Hacienda Brothers

James Kelly, - Sept. 13, 2006

           The chasm between country and soul music was not always as wide as it appears today. In the 1920s, there was little distinction between music made by white performers and music made by black performers. The socially constructed delineation was a marketing decision, plain and simple. To the educated listener, the similarities were always obvious -- both "black" and "white" music was about raw emotion, life events and relationships. It was also about social issues, injustice and culture. It was about rhythm, flow and melody. Clearly, they were a lot more alike than different.
           The Hacienda Brothers, fronted by Californians Dave Gonzalez and Chris Gaffney, join a long line of artists such as Ray Charles, Charlie Rich and, more recently, Buddy Miller, who strive to merge the two styles into one cohesive concept (with a little help from the legendary producer Dan Penn). "Gaff and I kept bumping into each other over the years," Gonzalez says, "and since we shared a lot of the same ideas about country and soul music, we decided to try and make this happen."
           Gonzalez was a founding member and frontman of the Paladins, a roots-rock band that helped define the southern California rockabilly/blues scene. Despite being the lead vocalist and guitarist as well as writing some of the band's music, Gonzalez sees more potential with his new group. "In the rockabilly scene, we were pretty limited in what we could do," he says, "but the Haciendas has given me lots of room to expand -- musically, as an arranger, and as a writer. And I have more opportunity to experiment with texture and melody."
           Gaffney is still a part-time member of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, and for years fronted his own honky-tonk band, the Cold Hard Facts. His love of traditional country, hard rock and classic R&B had a major influence on his own sound, and the Hacienda Brothers has proven to be the ideal medium for expressing that blend. "Gaff is a gifted singer, plays accordion and rhythm guitar. Whatever he is called on to do, he hits it out of the park," Gonzalez says.
           Working with Penn was a coup for the Hacienda Brothers. Best known for his prolific songwriting, Penn composed classic crossover tunes such as "I'm Your Puppet," "The Letter," "Do Right Woman" and "Dark End Of The Street," all recorded many times over by numerous artists. His musical contributions at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and American Studios in Memphis read like a textbook of blue-eyed soul. Gonzalez sees Penn's collaboration with the Haciendas as a perfect match. "We met Dan at an Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, and he invited us to hang out at his farm in Alabama," Gonzalez says. "He was initially impressed with Gaff's voice, and he liked our sound and the tunes. When he offered to produce our record, it was a dream come true."
           On their recent Proper Records release, What's Wrong With Right, the Haciendas and producer Penn set out to create an album they hoped would cross predefined stylistic categories. "Dan liked the first record," Gonzalez recalls, "but he suggested that we focus a bit more on the soul sound, saying, 'I want to hear a little more R&B, that's my bag.'" The album is a near-perfect blend of classic country and pure soul, and as rich as the heritage it mines.
           "What's Wrong ..." flows with a groove across several original tunes, a Charlie Rich cover, two Dan Penn songs and an amazing version of the classic Gamble & Huff hit "Cowboys To Girls" (originally performed by the Intruders). But the twang is still there, loud and clear. David Berzansky's sweet pedal steel works perfectly, fitting right along with the soulful keyboards of guest player Joe Terry.
           "The musical scales I learned playing along with classic soul records are quite similar to country music," Gonzalez says, "and the Hacienda Brothers is our way of overcoming that big gap between country and soul." --- Mission accomplished.

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