After tearing it up in the Lone Star State and across the country for nearly two years, Austin’s Stone River Boys will issue their recording bow Love on the Dial on June 1 via Northampton, Mass.-based Cow Island Music.
The Texas-based quintet features the talents of two well-traveled roots music practitioners — guitarist Dave Gonzalez, formerly a driving force in the Hacienda Brothers and the Paladins, and vocalist Mike Barfield, “The Tyrant of Texas Funk” and onetime leader of the Hollisters. Together, Barfield and Gonzalez have fashioned a gutsy crossbreed of country and R&B they’ve labeled “country funk.”
The Stone River Boys’ sound extends the direction of Gonzalez’ previous band, the Hacienda Brothers, who recorded three studio albums with producer and country-soul legend Dan Penn. Gonzalez was partnered in the Haciendas with Southern California-bred singer Chris Gaffney.
After Gaffney was diagnosed with liver cancer in early 2008, Gonzalez organized a benefit tour for his ailing bandmate, drawing musicians from Austin’s fertile talent pool. One of the principal members of the touring group was Barfield, whom Gonzalez had known since the early ’80s, when he fronted the top Southern California rockabilly band the Paladins and Barfield led the Houston bands the Rounders and the Hollisters.
Gaffney succumbed to cancer in April 2008, but the tour went on. “We went and did it anyway, and sent the money home to his wife Julie,” says Gonzalez. “A buddy of mine had a recording studio up in Nebraska, and while we were out on tour he invited us to come over there. We went in and cut a couple. I said to Barfield, ‘If you want to do a record, I’d love to, man.’ And we just started making a record.”
Barfield says, “We really naturally just started keeping it going. The name of the band came from the first place we rehearsed for that trip, in this little subdivision in deep South Austin, on a street called Stone River.”
Gonzalez recalls, “When I hooked up with Barfield, he had a whole pocket full of tunes. I felt, ‘We need to record these things right away.’ We wrote a couple right on the spot together. He had a few that were unfinished I kind of helped him with. But he wrote the majority of the material on the record.”
Produced by Gonzalez, the album was recorded during several sessions in 2008-09 with a band that included bassists Scott Esbeck (formerly of the way-out instrumental combo Los Straitjackets), Hank Maninger (Hacienda Brothers) and Kevin Smith (Dwight Yoakam), pedal steel whiz Dave Biller, and drummers Justin Jones and Damien Llanes. It extends the seamless fusion of country and soul influences essayed by both the Hacienda Brothers and Barfield, whose over-the-top funk shows at Austin’s Continental Club have become the stuff of legend.
“Chris Gaffney was a great Western singer,” Gonzalez says, “but he also had a knack for singing R&B and soul tunes, too. When I hooked up with Barfield, it was the same thing. He’s a country bro’, but he’s a funky soul bro’, too. In that sense, it does lean toward the way the Hacienda Brothers were. Dan Penn called our music ‘Western soul.’ Mike is real funky; I was telling everybody it’s more country soul. Lately we’ve been calling it ‘country funk,’ because we’ve got a little more funk and a little more up-tempo material in this new band than we did with the Haciendas.”
Barfield sees a natural connection between the sounds of country and R&B: “There’s a picture of Solomon Burke and Joe Tex, and maybe James Brown, and they all had cowboy hats on. A lot of those soul performers will talk about how they used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Some R&B songs, especially the ballads, are very close to some of the honky-tonk ballads. To me, it’s all very similar.”
Love on the Dial features 10 original songs written or co-written by Gonzalez, Barfield, Esbeck, and Biller, plus four musically diverse covers — the late Stephen Bruton’s “Bluebonnet Blue”; a cover of Tyrone Davis’ 1968 hit “Can I Change My Mind”; Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Take a Giant Step” (recorded by the Monkees, the Rising Sons, and Taj Mahal); and Nashville hitmakers Jerry Foster and Bill Rice’s “Special.”
Gonzalez says of the new unit, “I feel really refreshed. We have a different take on the country side of things. Mike is a Gulf Coast country Texas boy, and at the same time he’s got this funky up-tempo R&B thing going. I’m working a new style of guitar that I’ve always loved, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play it. People are saying they love the new band, and they’re glad to hear me playing a lot of guitar again.”
“This is the first band where I’ve had a full-time steel player,” says Barfield. “That’s something in this band I like — there are so many voicings. It gives you what a horn section might do or an organ might do.”
Gonzalez, Barfield, and Esbeck are joined in the current edition of the Stone River Boys by pedal steel guitarist Gary Newcomb and drummer Mark Patterson, who both played with Esbeck in Austin singer-songwriter Bruce Robison’s group. The band will support the release of Love on the Dial with a summer 2010 tour of the Southwest and the West Coast.