Former Hollisters front man Mike Barfield and Paladins guitar whiz Dave Gonzales seem like an odd musical pairing but, according to both, it's actually entirely logical.
"I met Mike the first time I ever played Houston, around 1982," says Gonzales. "I was a big fan of his bands the Rounders and the Hollisters. And I dug his records."
Barfield knew his partner in the Hacienda Brothers, Chris Gaffney, well from when the the Hollisters ruled Houston's alt-country scene in the late '90s and the groups were labelmates on Oakland-based HighTone Records, Gonzalez adds.
Had Gaffney not died rather suddenly of cancer in 2007, Gonzales and Barfield probably wouldn't be criss-crossing the country in a van together as the Stone River Boys. At the time of Gaffney's death, the Hacienda Brothers were one of the darlings of the alt-country scene and had just released Arizona Motel, which would prove to be their final album.
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"Talk about being at a loss of how to go forward," says Gonzales, who, at the time of Gaffney's passing, had settled full time in Austin after a long career in San Diego and was faced with a slew of bookings.
"We had all these dates lined up and we were committed to pushing the album and trying to make Chris's family some money, so I looked up Mike because he was one of my favorite Austin cats," he adds. "I just knew people would like him as lead vocalist. We've done 40,000 miles together since then.
"We played some great shows on that first tour. The biggest was a huge Fender Guitars showcase in Nashville, where people just loved us," Gonzales notes. "And then one of those freaky things happened that moves you in a new direction."
While playing at Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, Gonzales got a call from an old buddy with a nearby studio.
"So we went in and cut two of Mike's songs while we were there," recounts Gonzales, "and everybody was like, 'We really need to do this.' We did three more tours on a shoestring just so we could go up there and piece this album together."
There are some straight country tunes on the Stone River Boys' debut LP, Love on the Dial; one doesn't get too far into the album before realizing that the band is as much Joe Tex as Buck Owens. Songs like "Boomerang" and a stellar cover of Tyrone Davis's '60s soul hit "Can I Change My Mind" scream "country soul."
Barfield, who was born in Houston and lived here until the Hollisters broke up following guitarist Eric Danheim's move to Seattle, has found a new life alongside Gonzales.
"It's a huge creative spur being around Dave," he says. "His head is just jumping with ideas."
After moving to Austin, Barfield moved towards funk rather than country, as his self-ascribed moniker "Tyrant of Texas Funk" implies.
"You can be a country music lover, but in Houston you are going to also hear some funk and blues; it's just unavoidable," laughs Barfield. "That's just the way Houston is, and I was attracted to all of it."
Barfield sees his hometown as one of his newest band's key markets.
"We're not going to be like those bands that bypass Houston," he declares. "The thing about Houston is, you just have to keep showing up for work. Venues like Blanco's, the Continental and Mucky Duck are so varied, but that's an opportunity for us, not a negative."
"I have to listen to all that 'Houston's terrible' stuff in Austin all the time, so I'm almost immune to it," Barfield adds. "I tell 'em it's just like any other town, you have to work for it. But it's too big to ignore as a place to get your music in front of people. We're going to keep working hard, keep doing the tough gigs, and hopefully good things happen."
Gonzales, listed as one of Guitar Player magazine's "101 Forgotten Greats and Unsung Heroes," noted that he came from a household that was primarily into country music.
"I always wanted to play steel guitar, but I was too clumsy," he says.
"People think because the Paladins were this sort of hybrid rockabilly/blues thing that I'm not a country player, but I actually grew up on that stuff," says Gonzales, noting that his father's work took him to Buck Owens's home turf of Bakersfield.
"Dad would come back from trips and tell me, 'I saw Tammy Wynette' or 'I saw Merle Haggard,' so I was into country very early," he says. "But a real eye-opener for me as a guitarist came after I found the Stax soul stuff and the Chicago blues guys and discovered that I could mingle the styles and it sounded cool.
"In this project, with killer players like Dave Biller in the studio and Gary Newcomb on the road, we get to be really creative with the steel guitar, and that sets us apart," Gonzales says.
Another secret weapon is legendary soul writer and producer Dan Penn, who worked with Gonzales on two Hacienda Brothers records.
"When we finished Love on the Dial, I sent Dan a copy. We were in Nashville a few days later and he invited us over to his studio," he recalls. "We sat there all afternoon and he went through the tracks one by one and broke them down. He's been super-supportive."
At a Country Music Hall of Fame gig, Gonzales adds, "Dan was in the front row. Then we played a show in Alabama last week and he got up onstage and sang with us. Man, what an honor something like that is. We're hoping he'll work with us on the next Stone River Boys album."
Despite its Texas and California ties, the Stone River Boys looked to Bill Hunt's Cow Island Records far to the northeast, in Massachusetts, for label support for Love on the Dial. According to manager Jeb Schoonover, the deal was perfect for the emerging band.
"After putting out Arizona Motel on our own, we definitely wanted someone to come in on this project. Bill Hunt saw the band at SXSW and said they were the best band he'd seen there. And true to his word, he has now taken that excitement right into this project," says Schoonover, who frequently co-writes with Gonzales.
"Someone who really believes in what you are doing, that was the most important aspect in signing with Bill and Cow Island, having someone willing to go the extra mile for you."
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