Alt-country darlings the Hacienda Brothers got their start in Tucson. They now live in Los Angeles, but from the stage they advertise themselves as a Tucson band. Go to their Web site, and you'll see silhouettes of saguaros.
Country star-in-waiting Troy Olsen also lets folks know he's from Tucson. He got his start fronting the house band at The Maverick — King of Clubs, which has been the springboard for Tucson country singers for more than four decades. These days Olsen is in Nashville, chasing the dream of a big-league career.
Tucson is home to second-career dreamers such as DeLon Thompson; little ladies with big dreams such as the teenage yodeling champ Tiffany Jo Allen; guys who hang onto the dream such as Jadi Norris; and guys like Andy Hersey who set their own rules.
There are others you can throw into a list of country singer/songwriters who call Tucson home: Nancy McCallion, Al Foul, even Calexico if you pigeonhole them into the all-encompassing "alt-country" genre.
Collectively, they remind us of when the West was wild, and they give us one more reason to brag about our distinctive and evolving music scene.
Here are just a few of those bragging rights.
'Ranch rock' springs from cowboy life
The Sonoita-area ranchman tools around the country Roger Clyne-style, packing his equipment in a van and stopping at any club, honky-tonk or bar that will have him.
He takes the stage with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, singing songs about the Southwest desert and the cowboy life he's mostly left behind. If you ask him, he'll tell you the story about the horse he was shoeing that kicked him square in the stomach and sent him on his backside, causing him an injury so fierce it made him rethink his life. That's the day he had his epiphany. He traded in life on the ranch for life on the road, and he has yet to look back with regret.
Last Saturday, Hersey played before his biggest audience ever — about 800 people at the Rialto Theatre. He did a 40-minute opening set for his buddy Clyne, then joined him onstage to sing a song the pair had written together.
He sprinkled that show with songs from his upcoming second indie release, "Between God and Country," the follow-up to his 2002 debut, "Compañero Blanco." The disc will be released late this month or early in April.
On a cool Sunday morning in January, he played a showcase of those songs in the Northwest Side living room of longtime friend and former KIIM-FM DJ Mark Bateman and his wife, Kim, and a few friends.
"I hope you like this," Hersey said before every song, then acted genuinely excited and relieved when everyone clapped.
Hersey has created his own style of country music that he likes to call "ranch rock." It's cowboy country, with Western accents laid over contemporary country like what the late Chris LeDoux did, only without as much energy. But it is a country sound that defines Tucson much in the way that Calexico defines desert rock.
Four years ago, Hersey left his day job shoeing horses and dove full time into a music career he had been nurturing on weekends for 18 years. He decided back then, though, that he would no longer provide the soundtrack of country covers for folks dancing and drinking in bars. He would only do his own music, songs seeped in the Southwest that defines him.
It was slow at first, but Hersey guesses he'll do 200 shows this year all around the country, following in the footsteps of his longtime friend, Phoenix roots rocker Clyne. (Hersey lives on the front 20 acres of the Clyne family's Sonoita-area ranch as a gentleman rancher, raising a few head of cattle, 40 chickens — "that's about 30 eggs every day" — and boarding horses.)
The 39-year-old father of two boys recorded his sophomore indie album in Nashville.
Describe your music: "Everybody likes to compartmentalize. Let's call it from traditional to folk rock. Cowboy stuff, always with a Western theme. Ranch rock."
Describe your live show: "The live show is always very intimate and personable. I have a full 90 minutes of my own stuff that I do. I'll be damned if I'm going to drive to Denver to do Johnny Cash. You play harder to six people than 60. "
Your big brush with fame: "Fame is not the goal. Notoriety for the songs is the goal. That way, it is not all about me. My whole self-worth is not about how famous I get. We love that we are making a difference and that people do listen."
Career you want most to emulate: "I liked — until he started acting — Kris Kristofferson. He had a bunch of people recording his songs."
The day job you left behind: "Shoeing horses. I got tired of getting hurt shoeing horses."
See him live: 11 a.m. Saturday at "A Very Special Horse Event," Horse Haven Equestrian Center, 4885 S. Houghton Road; and 8 p.m. April 25 at Chuy's, 7585 S. Houghton Road.
VINCE MORENO AND SUNDOWN
'I just kind of call songs off as I see people dancing'
Lead singer Moreno is living life on the country road, playing in Neal McCoy's touring band. He hooked up with McCoy two years ago at a KIIM-FM concert at the Pima County Fairgrounds and hopped on the bus that night. His first show with McCoy was in Wisconsin before a crowd of 65,000.
He has toured the country almost nonstop since, but in his downtime at home, he rejoins his 8-year-old band to pick up gigs. Mostly, the guys do cover songs; the 32-year-old says he hasn't had much time to hone his own material, although he has written plenty.
Let him introduce his band: Moreno on lead vocals; Glen McKinney on bass; Randy Cheathum on drums; and Will Brown on guitar.
Your sound: "We do a couple originals, but we just do the cover thing for all the dancers."
How the band came together: "We were already kind of together. Our drummer left and I just kind of took over and put some gigs on. That's when we played at The Maverick. The way we come up with 'Sundown' was the Gordon Lightfoot song 'Sundown.' "
Describe the music you play: "I like to do a lot of the older, traditional country because that's what I grew up on. We do some newer stuff, but we like to mix in a lot of the older country stuff and we put our own touch on it, rock it up a little bit. And no Neal McCoy stuff. It's just funny because I used to do so many of his songs before I joined up with him."
Describe your live show: "Pretty much the same as Neal. We don't have a set list. I just kind of call songs off as I see people dancing. We just kind of take it by feeling what the people are doing."
Your big brush with fame: "When I met Hal Rugg, that is probably what catapulted me. He took me to the Opry for the first time and he introduced me to some key people. Now when I go out with Neal, I run into these people and I already know them."
The career you want most to emulate: "I would really like to have my own record deal and do my own thing, record my own songs."
The day job you left behind, or the one you would like to leave behind: "Since we've been home, I've been back at the construction company running heavy equipment."
See him live: Today, Tuesday and next Thursday at The Maverick — King of Clubs, 6622 E. Tanque Verde Road; Friday and Saturday at C-Note Lounge, 1302 W. Roger Road; and April 15 at Country Thunder USA in Florence with Neal McCoy.
THE ROBERT MORENO BAND
Hardcore country shares stage with Mexican music
Moreno is a country-music weekend warrior; his full-time job is fighting fires with the Three Points Fire District. His namesake band is in residence weekends at The Maverick, and they play corporate gigs and private parties. Last week, they played at the Tucson Rodeo.
Moreno, no relation to Vince, got his start in music when he was all of 4. His mom enrolled him in mariachi, and a year later, when he was 5, he was touring.
"It was probably not as much fun as I would have liked to have. While all the kids were running around playing sports, I was tied up in music," the 33-year-old father of three recalled.
From mariachi, he moved to Tejano bands and toured Texas, playing keyboards. He left that after a few years and came home to pursue country music. He recorded a CD of Tejano and country songs called "Just Did It" that landed him an opening gig for Sammy Kershaw at Old Tucson Studios in 1999. He and his band had only rehearsed five times, and they had to rely on sheet music to get through the 45-minute set of covers. That wasn't a problem for the crowd of 2,500; the audience gave Moreno a reception worthy of a Nashville star.
"Once I got that opening, from there I had some different avenues," Moreno said.
Let him introduce his band: Moreno plays guitar, keyboards and drums, and sings lead; Billy Dinardo on drums; Gene Nordine on bass; Jack Bishop on rhythm guitar and backup vocals; Pete Smith on steel; and Dave Johnston on lead guitar.
How did you come together: "After I got the opening . . . I had gigs, but I didn't have a band. At the time, (Jadi Norris and Overdrive) were having troubles, so I got a few of his guys."
Describe your music: "Traditional country. We do some new stuff, but we try to stick to the real hardcore country. But due to my versatile background, we also do a little Tejano and funk. A mix of Mexican music."
Describe your live show: "Energetic. I try to emulate Garth Brooks, have a real energetic show like that. Then my other singer kind of looks like George Strait."
Your big brush with fame: "I went to pick up my kids at school the other day, and the teachers say, 'Are you the Robert Moreno who plays at The Maverick?' Then being able to hang out with the big guys like Tracy Byrd and Blake Shelton when they did a show at The Maverick."
Career you want most to emulate: "I would love to follow in Garth Brooks' footsteps if I could and break records. But ultimately, I do believe that music first and foremost is a blessing to me and I thank God every time I am able to take the stage."
The day job you left behind, or the one you would like to leave behind: "I'm a fireman. I would like to do music full time, but I love being a fireman. Saving lives and running into a burning building is a passion. I will always be a fireman at heart."
See him live: Fridays and Saturdays at The Maverick; and March 17 at Ora Mae Harn Park, Marana, for the town's 30th-anniversary Founders' Day celebration.
'Our whole thing is we're going for the party feeling'
They are Tucson's newest country cover band, but look beneath the cowboy hats and you'll see familiar faces. The quartet has played around Tucson for decades as hired guns and in throw-together bands.
"We're just fun. It's a party band," said drummer and band spokesman Joe Dunlap.
The four musicians — Dunlap, bass player and vocalist Charlie Bandy, lead guitarist and vocalist Wayne Sloan and slide guitarist Nick Musiker — got together for a New Year's Eve gig at Brat's Bar & Grill on the far West Side. The crowd loved them, so they decided to make a go of it as a band.
How did you come together: "We were on a gig together with another group called Renegade and we started talking about putting something together. And that's what we did. Everyone in this band I've worked with in other bands. . . . We come to the table with songs we've played for other people. We already kind of know what everyone likes, as far as what gets people on the dance floor."
Describe your music: "I would call us country, rock, boogie and blues. It's all covers."
Describe your live show: "Energetic and just a party feel. Our whole thing is we're going for the party feeling."
The career you want most to emulate: "I don't know. It's hard because you're doing covers anyway."
The day job you left behind, or the one you would like to leave behind: "Everybody has jobs. I'm an independent filmmaker. We have regular day jobs because you just can't play music full time and live at it."
See them live: Saturday and March 23 and 24 at Brat's Bar & Grill, 5975 W. Western Way, 578-0341.
And much love to . . .
Jadi Norris and Overdrive
This high-steppin', fun-lovin', rocking band puts a little kick in its country. Until recently, Norris was at The Maverick, where he cemented his reputation as a country singer fronting the house band from 1997 to 1999. He briefly left Tucson and returned home to North Carolina in 2002, but came back to Tucson in 2004. He and the band play driving, honky-tonk rich covers and equally rocking original songs at 9 p.m. Fridays at Casino of the Sun, 7406 S Camino de Oeste; and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays at Casino del Sol, 5655 W. Valencia Road. Online: www.jadinorrisoverdrive.com
The honky-tonk, alt-country band's two founders were born in Tucson but raised in California. Chris Gaffney and Dave Gonzalez, who each spent part of their childhoods in the Old Pueblo, have recorded here, and their longtime manager is local music guru Jeb Schoonover, who runs Honky-Tonk Hacienda. The two bandmates' style resonates with honky-tonk and traditional twang, and they sing songs that are sometimes irreverent but always honest. The five-member band was in Spain last week, and the group heads to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas later this month. In April, the band is headed to Europe for a series of shows. Online: www.hacienda brothers.com.
The recent Nebraska transplants — lead singer Matt Smith and bass player Mark Smith (his brother) and lead guitarist Billy Baxter — settled into Tucson about two years ago. The band, which has been together eight years, much of that spent on the road, played a spell at The Maverick and other clubs before finding a weekend home about seven months ago at River's Edge, 4635 N. Flowing Wells Road. Drummer Johnny Decico and Chris Brown on keyboards/harmonica round out the band, which plays a mix of country covers and soulful originals to a packed house on most weekends. See them live: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at River's Edge, 887-9027.