The Hacienda Brothers were supposed to make their second album all covers, but upon receipt of What's Wrong With Right I found only five, and the rest were Hacienda originals, which I learned only after careful research because they all sounded equivalently good. And I guess that was the problem: too many good originals? Ha ha, says singer/guitarist Chris Gaffney, resting in a Denver hotel room between van ride and show. It'd be a little presumptuous to do all covers for a second record, he says, so they put a few Johnny Paycheck songs back in the bin and did their record in time-honored honky-tonk tradition: some of their songs and some of someone else's songs—including a few by soul songwriter Dan Penn, now so attached to the band that Gaffney says he's like an older brother, or "the kid down the block who tells you to get lost when you're watching him work on his car"—and all their own sound, a border-radio-style zigzag between soul and country and early Sun-style rock & roll done with the kind of dedication to detail that once made America great.
"If we pick up tunes," says Gaffney, "it's gotta be somebody we admire. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you I'm Percy Sledge, but I can give it a try. And nobody can out-sing the Big O; you can't touch Otis Redding, but you can enter the song with a certain reverence, and hold it true to form. On all those songs, I think, 'I'm not Otis Redding, so I just have to be me.'"
But luckily he's had a lifetime to work on that: before he settled in Costa Mesa, little Gaffney used to practice accordion in a room overlooking happier kids out on the football field ("Could you put a little more tape across the center of my glasses?" he asks) and learned Standells' "Muddy Water" when he very first learned how to play (and "Gloria"? "'Gloria' was covered," he confirms). He also learned some kind of heroic matter-of-factness, though—laughing about the songs he would have liked to record, though "the world is better off that I didn't!"—and figured out dynamic and discipline and plain good sense. And then when he found Paladins' Dave Gonzalez (and Dave Berzansky, Hank Maninger and Dale Daniel), that first self-titled album even gave Gaffney's hard-to-impress wife goosebumps, reported our own Jim Washburn: "The best thing to happen to country music," he said, "in years."
So they do cover songs reverent like something from church—when Hacienda imports a song, it changes to fit them, instead of the other cover-band way around. Accordion and steel guitar can make a horn section, says Gaffney, or marimba can make the vibes that strung tinsel on the sound of Philadelphia, or the steel guitarist can pick up a trumpet if they really need him to—that's unalloyed versatility that makes Hacienda Bros. able for almost anything. The Intruders' "Cowboys to Girls" (perfect cover, glowing with that steel guitar) or Percy Sledge-by-way-of-Dan-Penn song "It Tears Me Up" or Chilton-by-way-of-Dan-Penn song "Cry Like a Baby" sound truly Deep South, the reconciliation of the sum output of Williamses Andre and Hank, and Andre even used to listen to Hank while he was doing fieldwork in Bessamer, Alabama. Though Gaffney says the Hacienda's "Western soul" tag stuck just because they put soul covers in a country set, and Gaffney agrees with Dan Penn that there's really absolutely nothing in common between country and soul, his own actual record argues differently.
Hacienda's fine originals fit tooth-and-gear against their adopted songs, and Gaffney and co. so convincingly own everything they play that legal credit for this or that dissolves anyway: the Charlie Rich-est moments don't even come on the Charlie Rich covers, and they don't technically take anything from Buck Owens besides an admirable dedication to guitar tone as God intended, but What's Wrong With Right has a certain quality of familiarity that comes from just simple honest quality. Songs you think you should have heard before, but you didn't because Hacienda hadn't written them yet: "Keep It Together" sounds like they found it on something from Stax, but no, that's a Hacienda original, and then the accordion break makes "Rebound" sound like nothing but a Hacienda original, but no, that's Charlie Rich from Sun Records instead. Gaffney is of course heroically matter-of-fact about the songs he sings, besides Van Halen and U2 at weddings: "If I can't pull it off," he says, "I don't wanna do it." But grant me the clarity to know what I can not pull off so I can measure out a band like this: five beautiful borrowed songs that fit like big sisters beside the homegrown originals, and when Hacienda plays them, they aren't someone else's anymore.
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THE HACIENDA BROTHERS PERFORM AT THE BLUE CAFÉ, 210 PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111; WWW.THEBLUECAFE.COM. SAT. CALL FOR TIME AND COVER. 21+.