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Down in the nether regions of southern Arizona, where the Santa Cruz River nourishes the land and the grass grows waist high, lies the San Rafael Ranch, now a state park, where Tucson-based country troubadour Andy Hersey worked as a real-life cowboy and shoed horses just over a decade ago. The ranch's main house, "el casa grande," faces the U.S./Mexico border.
"The only thing standing between me and Mexico was a rusted wire fence and the love for my country," Hersey sings on the title track of his new independently released CD Compañero Blanco.
"Compañero Blanco" is a tale of friendship that transcended the language barrier between Hersey and the San Rafael's Mexican-American foreman, Ruben Ceballos, and a brotherhood built over weeks and months of hard labor. The song is a sepia-tinted epic of Sonoran cowboy life, painted with Western storyteller flair in the spirit of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
While Hersey strums his guitar at a down-tempo trot, he remembers his first day working in what Ceballos considers "occupied Mexico," while session player Tim O'Connor carves a mournful fiddle. Hersey recounts the imagery that haunted their days – the heavy rain clouds Ceballos called los chubascos, the rare Sonoran moonshine called bacanora that the cowboys toasted the land with, "and the aroma that rose from the dust and the seed after six months of drought, it was stronger than cannabis."
"I was house-sitting for a friend and had a large block of time by myself in Sonoita," Hersey says, remembering the days he wrote "Compañero." "There was a hammock and my guitar, and a pretty good wine cellar. I was just pacing back and forth, lookin' over, and I just started reminiscing, and missin' [San Rafael] real bad . . . you know how you start feeling smaller than you used to be? I don't have my calluses anymore. My hands just used to throb, the pain would keep me awake at night. I didn't complain; it felt tough."
In a time when country-western music is populated with pretty-faced pop sensations and crossover cons, Hersey is the genuine article – a true Sonoran cowboy who's spent much of his 35 years in the saddle on Arizona ranches and living "a free life in love with the land," as he writes on "If These Walls Could Talk," an emotional duet with Roger Clyne of Tempe's Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, with whom Hersey has formed a productive friendship.
Hersey, who plays weekly gigs at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe, was brought up in southeastern Arizona, the son of a mechanical engineer but destined for a more natural existence. He bought his first drum set when he was 12 years old, his first horse when he was 14, purchased a one-ton truck and travel trailer when he was 16, and at the age of 18 bought a guitar to materialize the lyrics he'd been writing into songs. When he graduated high school in 1985, he journeyed out to Oklahoma City to attend farrier's college and learn the horseshoeing trade.
When he returned to southern Arizona, he got work as an apprentice farrier and made a pass at college rodeo riding. "I wasn't any good at it," he explains over a late-night cup of black coffee in the earnest drawl that's the foundation of his melodies. "I blamed it on being a rich man's sport, and that's how I justified quittin'."
Instead of rodeo, Hersey set about developing a side career as a honky-tonk man, starting out at the age of 20 playing cover songs in a bowling alley bar with a band he called Spur of the Moment. "We were terrible," he says, laughing. "I had all the equipment, that's the only reason those other guys hung out with me, 'cause I sucked."
While his talents developed, Hersey blanketed the bars and honky-tonks of southern Arizona, playing wherever they'd let him. He got a solo gig as the house entertainment at the Steakout restaurant in Sonoita, Arizona, playing Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for a hundred dollars a night. "That's where I learned how to look people in the eye and see if it made a difference to them, if they cared or not," he remembers.
Soon Hersey was playing at casinos, resorts and weddings in pickup bands – after the gig was booked, he'd frantically call the musicians he knew, looking for anyone available to play cover songs with him. Hersey was developing a catalogue of his own material, but conventioneers and casino gamblers weren't interested in originality, and he kept those songs under his omnipresent Stetson hat. His originals emulated the spirit of his heroes – songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clarke, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Hersey met Roger Clyne while he was shoeing horses on Clyne's father's ranch down near Sonoita. "Doc – Roger's dad – and I had known each other for some time," Hersey explains. "The Refreshments [Clyne's previous band] all came in for dinner, they were barely off the road, and I remember my first impression was that he looked tired, very road-weary. Roger's dad grabbed us both by the back of the neck and said, You guys need to get to know each other,' then turned around and walked away."