july 2008

Go For the Extended Stay Rate

By David McGee


(from left) Hacienda Brothers Dave Gonzalez and the late Chris Gaffney (Photo: El Paso Music Scene)

Hacienda Brothers
Proper Records

The sad backstory of the Hacienda Brothers’ terrific Arizona Motel album is that the group’s soulful lead singer, Chris Gaffney, succumbed to liver cancer on April 17. With a husky, earthy voice, Gaffney brought the Haciendas’ songs (some of which he wrote) to vivid life, giving even the darkest of narratives the grit and buoyancy of an unconquered spirit. Formed in 2002, the Haciendas—whose other members include principal songwriter and guitarist Dave Gonzalez, bassist Hank Maninger, steel guitarist David Berzansky and drummer Dale Daniel—recorded only four albums, but each one showed a band refining its rootsy sound (dubbed “Western soul,” it embraced southwestern country, honky tonk, classic R&B and Tex-Mex) as its members grew into each other and enhanced their individual strengths to become a tight, tough quintet that advanced music aimed at both the body and the mind in the slice-of-life, and sometimes topical, lyrics Gaffney and Gonzalez penned. Few artists around can deliver a piercing, tear-stained love song as beautifully crafted as the blue-eyed country soul of “Ordinary Fool,” co-written by Gonzalez and Haciendas manager Jeb Schoonover (whose 40th birthday party was the occasion for Gonzalez and Gaffney—also celebrating his 40th on that day—to meet and strike up a musical partnership), but it’s Gaffney’s somber, plaintive reading of those lyrics, set to a lilting, southern soul arrangement keyed by a bluesy piano, a warm, humming organ, and an atmospheric, crying pedal steel, that lifts the sentiments onto a higher plane of feeling. So it is the performances throughout Arizona Motel, when the simplest articulations of the heart hit doubly hard with a one-two punch of rich soundscapes coupled to Gaffney’s knowing vocal attack.

Not the least of this band’s weapons is the man who has contributed songs to its repertoire in the past and has produced its finest moments on record, one Dan Penn, the larger than life legend of southern soul music, who returns here behind the board on five tracks recorded in Nashville, as co-writer with Gonzalez of a gospel-tinged heartbreaker, “Use to the Pain,” and composer of the mellow, album closing words of wisdom, “Break Free,” a laid-back bit of southern soul promoting the sensible advice to bid adieu to anything that’s holding you back from realizing your dreams—“you can live your life just like you want it/if you just break free,” Gaffney exhorts in a sandpapery howl as the music rises in triumphant, hymn-like swells behind him. It’s Penn’s backwoods romantic’s sensibility looming over the abovementioned beauty, “Ordinary Fool,” and asserting his juke joint credentials on a bit of blues-honky tonk instrumental fusion, “Light It Again Charlie,” featuring some rousing, spitfire baritone guitar solos from Gonzalez, Joe Terry adding ballast with the organ and color with a pumping piano, and, about halfway through, an enticing taste of Gaffney’s lively accordion work.

But to the Haciendas’ credit, the nine tracks the band produced with engineer Bill Cashman in Tuscson, AZ (not the group’s home base—that would be Southern California—but a town to which it has deep ties), meld perfectly with the robust sound and elegant style of Penn’s productions. There’s a lot of life explored here: the pulsating, bittersweet reflections of wasted days and wasted nights in “A Lot of Days Are Gone,” enhanced by Gonzalez’s twangy guitar soloing and Gaffney’s tinkling piano, evoke memories of Waylon Jennings’s memorable inspections into his own youthful follies; the bustling honky tonk vow of abiding love, “I’ll Come Running,” mates Gaffney’s enthusiastic affirmations to appropriately exuberant instrumental soloing; and the low-down tonk blues of “Divorce or Destroy” offers a shattering chronicle of a union not only beyond repair but with an omnivorous appetite for destruction as articulated by Gaffney in a cool, collected voice, announcing “In my heart/there’s no love left/for you,” giving the finality of the words and the dead tone of the singer’s pronouncement a bone chilling resonance. And in a moment as relevant now as it was to the timeframe of the song itself, “Uncle Sam’s Jail,” dark, moody and resolutely propulsive, tells the story of an American soldier in Vietnam (the “Jail” of the title), trying to make it from one day to the next, growing “old beyond my years” as the battle rages, knowing “most of us are losing/while the rich folks run the game,” and trying to square the values and morals he was taught in his youth with the lawlessness of the conflict he’s ordered to join. Instrumentally the song’s minor key progression, dark, ominous and unrelenting in its desultory mood, is a haunting mix of steel and nylon string acoustic guitars, low-key steel guitar swirling around underneath and plaintive interjections from Gaffney’s accordion. But what makes it all work is the awe inspiring presence of Gaffney’s measured, nuanced vocal, which baldly expresses the conflicted emotions of a young man thrust into a morally ambiguous environment yet trying to hold on to his essence. Singing in 3-D seemed to come natural to Chris Gaffney, but it’s a trait only our greatest singers possess. Check into Arizona Motel and check out him and his mates. The extended stay rate is the best deal in town.

NOTE: A portion of the proceeds from sales of Arizona Motel will be donated to helpgaff.com to aid the family of Chris Gaffney.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024