I didn’t really know who Chris Gaffney was beyond a much-mentioned obscurity I was told I should probably get around to checking out. Not being from the southwest, I was often let off the hook — though not by X’s John Doe, who told me in an interview not long ago that my lack of Gaffney knowledge was surprising, if not outright embarassing. Well, look, that was before I acquired Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney, and where Gaffney’s legacy is concerned — at least according to Dave Alvin, who wrote the album’s tender liner notes in salute to his fallen friend — that lack of recognition is generally the case.
So three cheers to this meticulously assembled posthumous Gaffney glass-raising, right from the outset. Not only has it been enough that I’m ready to question my own music geek credentials, but Gaffney’s music and story are also ripe for rediscovery for esoterica hounds and country-in-all-its-forms nuts like your faithful correspondent. Chris Gaffney, who died in April 2008 at age 57 from liver cancer, is the country-rock cult archetype laid bare: a brilliant songwriter, mighty singer, and ace musician cut down way too young by illness and survived by famous friends who just want to see the guy get some friggin’ props so his legacy can have the security it never attained when he was alive.
It’s a respectable mission by any measure, and one that earns even the dreariest tribute albums admirable ratings — it’s the thought that counts, even if the music sounds patchworked, hurried, or lukewarm. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. A Man of Somebody’s Dreams is first an expansive introduction to Gaffney as songwriter, second a collection of gem performances by his friends and contemporaries trying on some of the best of those songwriting efforts, and third, and most importantly, it’s a catalyst for attuned listeners to get their hands on as much actual Gaffney as they can.
Tribute albums this enriching — this destined for longevity beyond the lark of their release — rarely arrive more than once every few years. Well, hombres, we’re not yet halfway through 2009, and, along with Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm — which mines similar territory and includes many of the same musicians, even though Sahm was a far greater known quantity — we have two.
Know this about Gaffney, or learn as much, as I did, from his songs and from his friends: he was a scrapper. Sahm at least got few tastes of fame and fortune; Gaffney was a toiler, perhaps best known for his role in Alvin’s Guilty Men, and less so as a sessions talent for the likes of Lucinda Williams, the Iguanas, and the Lonesome Strangers. I haven’t delved deeply enough into his more recent work with the Hacienda Brothers to make a definitive statement, but my favorite Gaffney album so far remains Road to Indio, the 1986 debut that positioned him firmly in the overlap among Bakersfield country, soulful rock ‘n’ roll, and norteno and other Mexican and Texican forms of pop.
Alvin started work on the album while Gaffney was still alive; its proceeds were to go toward his mounting medical bills. That Alvin saw it through to its conclusion and masterminded the song selection and artists for the album definitely shows — everything’s a glove fit or close to it, from Joe Ely’s blast-off “Lift Your Leg” to James McMurtry’s ragged honky tonk sketch “Fight (Tonight’s the Night)”. Alvin gets a great turn from Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo on lead vocals for “Man of Somebody’s Dreams”, as well as from Peter Case on the lonesome yet defiant “Six Nights a Week”, Big Sandy and Los Straitjackets on a twangy “Silent Partner”, and Jim Lauderdale and Ollabelle on a tender “Glass House”.
Alvin claims “Artesia” for himself — it’s an not-so-obviously devastating portrait of how the southwest’s unique geographical features are being obscured by strip malls and homogeneity. Elsewhere, Alejandro Escovedo makes pleasant “1968”, with John Doe on “Quiet Desperation”, and a mesmerizing “Frank’s Tavern” by Calexico rounding out the highlights. From Gaffney’s own bands, Hacienda Brothers partner in crime Dave Gonzalez checks in on “Tired of Being Me”.
The last track isn’t one of Gaffney’s songs, but it is Gaffney himself, quietly burning his way through “Guitars of My Dead Friends” by Stanley Wykoff. It ends the album on a sad note; after all the jubilance, poignancy and full-throated gusto with which Alvin’s hired hands attack the Gaffney catalog, Gaffney’s voice is forced barely beyond a whisper, and he sounds exhausted. A vintage, full-bore Gaffney wouldn’t have been appropriate though. “Look what you missed out on while he was here,” Alvin seems to be saying, and no matter how astute you are at investigating Gaffney now, you still won’t get that chance.