As the leader of the San Diego-based Paladins, Gonzales has played revved-up, stripped-down rockabilly since the early 1980s. Fellow Californian Chris Gaffney spent those same years playing country and roots rock -- albeit, not as hurriedly -- on his own or with Dave Alvin. In 2003, the two decided to relocate to Tucson, Ariz., and form the Hacienda Brothers, whose self-titled first album was recently released on Koch Records. From the opening track, 'She's Gone,' the influence of the Bakersfield sound that characterized Buck Owens' greatest hits is obvious, including a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, and an ethereal pedal steel guitar backing Gaffney's rich baritone vocal.
'There's a little West Coast,' Gonzales agrees, talking by phone from Florida, 'a little Nashville, a little Muscle Shoals, a little Memphis, mixed together with the Southwestern feeling we get from being down in Tucson a lot.'
That honky-tonk sound played a role in bringing Gonzales and Gaffney together, but not as big a role as Jeb Schoonover. Schoonover is now the duo's manager, but he started as a friend and disc jockey in Tucson who invited each of them separately, when their respective bands passed through town, to appear on his radio show and spin some records. They both chose honky-tonk classics by Owens and Merle Haggard among others, and when the Paladins recorded a few country songs on an album, he encouraged Gonzales to write more.
Gonzales didn't think he could get the Paladins to do more country, and he definitely didn't see them indulging his desire for pedal steel or slow songs. Schoonover encouraged him to get in touch with Gaffney, at the same time telling Gaffney about Gonzales. The story isn't art, and the process wasn't instant -- it took almost 10 years of near misses and weekends of singing and writing together here and there -- but eventually the two got together.
The Hacienda Brothers gives Gaffney a chance to sing country and soul -- something he only gets to do occasionally touring with Dave Alvin -- while it gives Gonzales a break for carrying the load.
'In my other band for the last 20 years, I did all the singing and all the writing,' he says. 'I was really glad to step back and be the second singer or sing harmony parts or just play guitar parts.'
One of the first songs they wrote, Gonzales says, was a waltz, 'I'm So Proud.' 'I had never written a waltz before,' he says. When the band was looking for a producer, they sent 'I'm So Proud' and three other songs. The songs impressed Dan Penn, writer of such hits as the Box Tops' 'Cry Like a Baby,' Aretha's 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' and James Carr's 'Dark End of the Street,' so much so that he said, 'I got a brand new Lincoln Continental and I feel like taking me a drive,' Gonzales recalls. He drove to Tucson from Nashville with his wife, mother-in-law and his dog and hung out for two weeks in the fall of 2003. He was also so impressed with Gaffney's soulful voice that he wrote a song, 'The Years That Got Away,' for him to sing.
Gonzales recalls Penn being laidback, but not afraid to tell the musicians what he wanted. When they were cutting 'Saguaro,' a spaghetti western-like instrumental, he stopped the proceedings. 'He walked into the studio and walked right up to me, as close as you absolutely can possibly get, and looked at me dead in the eyes and said, 'Dave, I'm really looking for loneliness,'' Gonzales says.
That phrase not only motivated Gonzales' performance, but it gave him the title for a song he and Penn collaborated on. The morning after the 'Saguaro' recording, the two got up early and drove to a lookout on a mountain outside town to talk about everything under the sun. At some point, Gonzales says, 'we stopped throwing rocks and we went back to the truck, picked up the Spanish guitar I brought, and he started strumming it, gazing out over the horizon.'
The two handed the guitar back and forth and wrote it on the spot. When they got back to the studio, the group recorded the song that afternoon. 'By the time dinnertime rolled around, we were listening to it. That's pretty happening.'
Talking about the experience of making the record, Gonzales is obviously pleased. Besides the excitement of working with someone of Penn's legendary stature, it was clearly gratifying to work with him to put out an album that successfully merges classic country and soul. "He's an old-school cat, and that's how Gaff and I are," Gonzales says.