Reflecting with the Stone River Boys

“You can make up the rest,” Dave Gonzalez joked as he sat down in the court yard of the Hotel San Jose on South Congress with fellow Stone River Boy Mike Barfield.

On the heels of the band’s first release, Love on the Dial, the two were ready to look back at the recording and they’ll be back in Austin at the end of the week, playing the Continental Club on Friday night.

Dave: We’d started the record on our very first tour a year ago, we were up in Nebraska, going on two years. I’ve known Mike for years and years and he had a couple of real good songs. When we first decided to start playing together he’d go “I’ve got these songs,” and I’d go “Yeah, I’ve got these songs and man, I like a couple of those.” When we got up on our first tour in Nebraska, a friend of ours has a studio and he called out of the blue. He knew we were coming to town and my buddy, Charlie Johnson, the audio engineer on our record said, “If you’re gonna be in town for a few days, come by the studio. My buddy’s got this great studio, let’s go cut a couple of your tunes.” We did and those are the two tunes that started the whole thing.

After that we kept planning tours to go up to Nebraska in this little club that we always play call the Zoo Bar and the studio was a few blocks away. We’d go play a couple gigs, get enough money form our gig to get some studio time. One time we drove up, he [Mike] was so sick, he was laying in the back of the Cadillac and I said, “Man, we’ve go to make it, we’ve got studio time booked and he had a couple of brand new songs and I knew we had to get them on tape. And they came out good.

Mike: We kind of paid for it as we went, doing live shows.

D: A couple of times we went up there, we wrote the songs the night before the studio and barely had them written out and finished them in the studio. There’s a beauty to that, a hunger and a spontaneity a fresh born, new born thing when you just create it and boom, hit record and that’s what I really like about our new record we worked our butts off but we captured it fresh. It was on the verge of barely being able to pull it off but we did it.

M: It’s mostly originals, a cover by a friend, select, really rare covers

D: Covers that people would never guess… either that they’re covers or who did them in the first place. It’s our own arrangements and take, it’s a sound we’ve created from years and years of us both being into roots music, knowing each other for a long time and digging all these roots styles: country, blues, soul, jazz funk, R&B… we mixed that all together.
Stephen Bruton’s “Bluebonnet Blue” leads off the record, how did that song get picked?

M: I’ve been doing that song for a long time in another band in live shows and had met Stephen a few times and told him we were doing that tune. He was one of those guys that I didn’t even know all that well but every time he’d see you he’d always say, “Hey.”

The song, we changed it, it’s nothing like his version and we did our own twist on it. It’s a tip of the hat to him but first and foremost because it’s a great song. The other thing I thought that it was an honor to do something by someone we respected, it kind of keeps him alive.

D: We kept trying to cut it, we had already lost a few really good friends and Stephen Bruton was sick and the word was he wasn’t doing that good and Mike said, “He’s real sick and I really want to do ‘Bluebonnet Blue,’” and I said, “Yea, we’ve got to cut it, let him hear it before it’s too late.” We just hope he hears it now.

How is it being Stone River Boys instead of Hacienda Brothers or any of the other bands you’ve been in?

D: We made 45s when we started out, and now we have to make CDs. But we’ve got vinyl on the works. In fact, the whole idea was to make a 45, when we went to Nebraska.

M: I was always the only singer in most of the bands I was in and Dave was too, we’re enjoying the variety, it’s better for the audience and we can share. I enjoy the other things, harmonica, maracas, it’s more fun.

D: Not having to be the front man, we can play country soul, blues… We’ve got multiple soloists so I don’t have to carry the whole solos, we’ve got steel guitar, it’s a neat band for us because w’er older and we like a lot of different music. Maybe you really like high paced rock and roll or country, you’ll hear some of that but then the people over there that like groovy soul can say, “Hey, we like that.”

M: And country means something different now days, we’re not putting anybody down but we like the old country, but we’re not part of that modern thing.

D: When we write, we try to write like we were going to take a song to Merle Haggard or Al Green. I’m not just saying that, we really try to write like we’re going to deliver a song to Willie Nelson.

M: It’s a good mark to strive for, to write something that someone like that might approve of.

D: And we like each others driving. That’s weird because we’ve both been band leaders for a long time and did all the driving and all the singing and now it’s like “you want to drive,” Ok. We relax when each other drives and that’s very rare. For twenty years I couldn’t relax if someone else drove.

M: Some of them fall into the aggressive category.

D: Actually, all the Stone River Boys have driven. It’s an amazing band — they all play good and all drive good.
So which were the first two songs that you recorded?

D: First two were ‘Lovers Prison,’ which he cut with his other band way back when but I loved the song so much and I had a snappy arrangement to it. We gave it a 1967 Johnny Paycheck treatment to it and ‘Giant Step.’ The trippy thing is that it’s a cover tune and a lot of people know it, but I never knew it.

What I liked about it was that he sang it with an acoustic guitar and as soon as he sang it to me I heard a 12-sting guitar on the intro. That’s what set the pace for our record. It’s like “Wow, they did a song by Carole King,” and we’re like “We love Carole King,” and the Monkees did it and Taj Mahal did it, but what I liked about it was that I’d only heard him singing it, so when he sang it to me I didn’t have any preconceived idea of how the song was. We took it and made our own thing out of it.

And when the album was finished, where did you go from there?

D: The thing is that when we boiled it all down and shopped it, we went to Nashville we went out west we called everybody we knew and it’s a long, tough road to find a good label. We finally got signed, Cow Island, they’re a retro country label and we didn’t have to prove ourselves or explain anything.

Last year at SXSW we were playing at the Evangeline Café and Bill Hunt walked in and saw us and said says,”I’ve got a country label, I’m interested in you guys.”

M: The label thing is so weird now, it’s so hard to find a good one. The middle class has been eroded out of the music business.

D: There’s nothing wrong with a low budget recording, we just made one, but there’s so many people that are good artists that cant afford to record right because there’s no labels.
But we kept cutting and writing and sending out demos going, “Maybe you’ll like that one, or this one” and our managers were calling in all the troops. But Cow Island agreed on 12 songs, we kept going back and forth and we had to cut 4 songs out. One of them was a semi-outside tune that I had written and it was ok to leave it off.

M: Maybe it’ll make the next record.

D: Maybe, but then we had this other really obscure Mel Tillis song called ‘It All Depends on How You Drink the Wine’ and we cut it as a sound check in the studio. I told Mike that he should get behind the song and almost talked it like this old drunk dude sitting in the bar. We kicked it around but finally on the last time to the studio it was the last thing we did that and special.

M: I though it was weird at first and I sound like Boris Karloff to me.

D: But with the new record deal, they wanted 10 originals, 2 covers. We’re holding it for the next record and if not it’s going to be a 45.

M: It’s almost recitation.

D: It’s the sound of the 60s that no one can get these days… it’s this crazy sound in my head that’s so out, it’s in. Somehow or another the song will get out.

You had mentioned that there would be a vinyl release…

M: Yeah, to me, when you have a record in your hands, that means everything. An album was a big thing, and the album art was better, you had something to look at. It was a bigger thing and it had more mystery.

D: It had more substance, I’ve got records hanging on my walls, it means ‘OK we really did it, it’s there forever.’ I don’t feel like I trust CDs.

M: It’s like digital TV, you get this fragmentation.

D: How can you say that’s better than the analog?

M: I just read this book called “House of Hits” about the Sugar Hill Studios in Houston. It’s a really good book about the history. Back then they’d press the record right there, it was like a machine shop, there’s an art but there’s some equipment. It’s an interesting story. It was neat to hear something about that, this guy who knew nothing about it and learned it on his own, build some of his own gear and everything.

D: I’m a nuts and bolts guy, always, since I was a kid “I’ve got a microphone what happens when I put them together,can I get a double sound?” I was always trying to figure out how to record and make a demo or double and it kept evolving to being able to go to the studio.

M: We both believe in trying to capture it, to get as close to live as we can. Instead of thinking we could go back in later. We like it to have an urgency, like you used to have to cut.

D: All of our really great favorite records, they were’t overdubbing that much, they were trying to cut as much as possible at the same time. The bands playing off the singer and the singers playing off the band. We didn’t have the budget to do a lot, we’d go in and record four tunes and we’ve made enough records between all of us that we knew that once we’re in there we’ve got a basic plan and everybody agrees and hit it, a couple takes in we’ve got it. As fresh as we could get it.

M: We’d have a gig to play, too. W’ed get up from the first night, go the studio and then go to the gig. It paid for it, it was a sense of accomplishment.

D: You forget the gig but we made a record and we’d drive home with it and make more plans. Luckily they like us at the club.

And what kind of music is on your dial?

M: Johnny Paycheck, Waylon, I like old country and I like old soul. That’s what we mostly listen to but we have a couple iPods and the only things that work in the van are the cassette player but we have that thing you can put in to the ipod and I like some stuff going on with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and I even like the Amy Winehouse stuff, that records really good and I’ve been more excited about more of the women I’ve heard. I love the old stuff, it’s hard to beat someone of the old. I don’t like to blind myself to the new but there are old records that are new to you and it’s like finding a little treasure. Or things you might have heard before and revisit.

D: A lot of times we’re driving down the road and since we make so much noise for a living, we get real quite I’ll look around and these two guys are sleeping and these two a re reading and I have time to think

M: You get aurally fatigued because we’re in loud, compressed nightclubs and you just ned to get a break form it. We’ll listen for a while and get into tit but then we shut it down.

Photo courtesy The Stone River Boys

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