The whole problem with alt.country is that its practitioners think of themselves as more country than country. They believe in a pristine pre-lapsarian golden time, when songs “meant something”, when Nashville was some kind of strong tragedy-filled city-state, blah blah blah. The truth, of course, is that country music has had songs about the decline of country music ever since its beginning. Pretty hard to keep up the oh-poor-us façade when it’s the oldest trick in the book.
So you can be forgiven for worrying about Hacienda Brothers, the semi-supergroup headed up by Chris Gaffney (The Cold Hard Facts, Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men) and Dave Gonzalez (The Paladins). They wear old-fashioned-y suits and make their backing musicians dress alike, they cover Mel Tillis and Fred Neil songs alongside their own original tunes, they are just as happy doing surf-hick instrumentals as they are belting out countrypolitan weepers. They’re putting on airs!
But, y’know, damn if they don’t deliver the goods like the UPS guy, or a really excellent drug courier. Gaffney is a very credible soul singer, with an imperfect voice that somehow manages to plumb the depths of human experience; Gonzalez’ voice is serviceable and personable, and his songs are amazing; together, they have the kind of it factor that could make them famous, in a very-limited-audience sort of way.
Here’s the thing I love about them so much: when they do a country song, they don’t try to make it into something it’s not. Gonzalez’s song “Leavin’ on My Mind” is a straightforward sort of thing, steel-guitar solo and Gaffney’s accordion coming in at the right time and perfect harmony vocals, everything vaguely 1970s-ish but not really, an old school dropout. When they essay the new classic “Seven Little Numbers”, they step gingerly, making sure that it’s not one whit more pretentious or complicated than it needs to be. This allows Gaffney’s weathered vocal, sad and happy at the same time (and perfectly backed by guest Jim Lauderdale), to shine like a poor couple’s engagement ring.
One could not say enough good things about their songs, which are mostly aces. The covers are impeccable, but the original songs are the most intriguing. Gonzalez turns in gems like “Walkin’ on My Dreams” and “Railed” (a surf-boogie instrumental with snaky guitar) as well as collaborating with producer Dan Penn on the country-funk song “Lookin’ for Loneliness”. Gaffney hits it out of the park with his only self-penned tune, “Turn to Grey”, with bizarre lyrics like “The baby’s fried and hungry with a load from here to Monday / I wish I would have met you when the Lord still took names / Now it’s hail Mary full of gin and sweet boneless Jesus / Our happy home might never be the same.”
So what’s not to love? Well, the best choice here, using Dan Penn as the producer, is also the worst choice. Penn and his longtime partner Spooner Oldham have long been legendary for their conflation of country music and soul music, and Penn works his ass off to establish Chris Gaffney as the new best voice in the world. Songs like “I’m So Proud” and “I’ve Got a Secret” go a long way toward proving this—dude might miss some notes here and there, but his weapon is a powerful one and must be celebrated in as many ways as possible.
But Penn is also tragically in love with the halcyon days of yore, when music and life were all pure and perfect or something, and some of that poison seeps through. Penn’s song “The Years That Got Away” is an old man’s song, and Gaffney can’t quite cut through its nostalgic murk. And, as awesome as it is to hear Memphis Horns legend Wayne Jackson on trumpet a couple of times, it is clear that Penn is using him to send a message: music used to be better than it is, and here’s a big fat reminder of that. Why can’t we just all realize that it is the year 2005, that we have what we have, and that we can move forward? It is a mystery to me.
But enough quibbles. This record is, frankly, a triumph. I have no idea what Gaffney and Gonzalez are going to be up to now, but I sincerely hope they stick together. There is powerful magic in this pairing, and an adventurous spirit that even legendary over-reverential super-producers can’t put down. I’m rooting for you, guys; you’re not old men yet, and you might give us some of the finest music we will be lucky enough to hear.