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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."
Clyne was familiar with Hersey already from his performances at the Steakout, and recalls the first time he heard "Compañero Blanco." "It captured everything about the area and the lifestyle and the feelin' of it, the soul of it, that anyone could want to hear in one song," he says. The two became fast friends and Hersey found a mentor of sorts in Clyne.
Clyne contributed vocal, guitar and harmonica work to Compañero Blanco, and guided Hersey through the process of producing the disc. Additionally, P.H. Naffah, the Peacemakers' drummer, produced and played drums on the record, and Peacemakers guitarist Steve Larson played guitar on "One More Way."
In 1999, Hersey inadvertently found the motivation that would shift his focus entirely onto his musical pursuits. He had contracted to shoe 20 horses on a private ranch and was working by himself. "One of the things they taught us in school was if you're gonna do the trade, you're gonna get hurt, it's just part of it," Hersey says. He was working on his last horse of the contract, a high-strung athletic horse just in from Texas, when his career was suddenly ended.
"I was working too fast around this horse, a horse that was unfamiliar with me. Usually, you can shoe a horse in about an hour; this horse it was an hour and a half just doing the front feet; he needed some help. I went to pick up his left hind foot and he started to lean; I thought he was gonna fall over. He jumped, caught himself with his right hind leg, lunged back toward me and kicked me below my belly button and above my belt buckle."
Hersey suffered an inguinal hernia as a result; he also decided that his horseshoeing days had come to an end. "The horse broke his lead rope, I left him standing there, I left my tools, everything. Then I decided, I don't want to do this anymore,'" he says.
Not long after, the Peacemakers invited Hersey to join them on a monthlong tour, opening for the band with only his acoustic guitar and his hat. "He just charmed 'em," Clyne says of Hersey's performances. "The music showed its strength."
That strength runs like a flash flood through a wash on Compañero Blanco. The album opens with "Horses Hitches & Rocky Trails," a foot-stompin' tribute to a nonagenarian cowboy named Lyman Tenney whom Hersey met when he was 17, working on the Pantano Ranch – "That was the first cowboy that ever called me a cowboy," grins Hersey.
Hersey channels the sorrowful spirits of country music's past throughout the album. On "(Next Time) A Diamond Won't Cut It" and "First Time Alone" he sings of love gone wrong and the tumult that follows for the women involved. "Losing Gets Easier," a duet with silver-voiced Kelli Weymouth, demonstrates Hersey's penchant for what he calls "Southwest cowboy rock 'n' roll," with searing guitar solos and a rhythm section powered by bass player Jay Trapp and the Peacemakers' Naffah. The album ends on a lighter note with "Cowboy Attitude," an intentionally hokey tale about rodeo rider Rocky Locke – "He said the hat cost 90 dollars but the attitude is free," Hersey sings over a plodding beat.
Andy Hersey is preparing to hit the road with a full band for the first time early this year. Since recording the album, he's put together a permanent lineup featuring brothers Danny and Joe Hernandez on drums and bass, respectively, Donny Russell on mandolin and guitar, and the Valley's Bobby Krech on the fiddle.
Hersey is intent on maintaining the old-school integrity of his music, even if that means being shunned by the Nashville mafia that runs the country music business with a heavy hand. "We just can't compromise ourselves," he says. "For the band, I want to keep people gainfully employed as long as we can. We want to make our families proud."
Clyne, for one, has no doubt that Hersey's ambitions will take him far. "He's the kind of guy that can do a lot of hard miles and still keep going," he says. "I'm not worried about whether his skin's thick or thin enough to be independent. He knows how to walk a desert."