Chris Gaffney, a roots-music omnivore whose earthy aplomb and offhand mastery of many styles made him a quintessential Southern California bar musician — but who also earned international regard for his heartfelt and witty songwriting — has died. He was 57.
Gaffney had been getting treatment for liver cancer that was diagnosed in February. His brother Greg said he died Thursday morning at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, where family members rushed him after a fall in his Costa Mesa home.
Gaffney toured extensively over the last nine years as a member of Dave Alvin’s backing band, the Guilty Men, playing accordion and guitar and adding vocals, and as lead singer of the Hacienda Brothers, in which he teamed with veteran San Diego guitarist Dave Gonzalez.
But Gaffney had been a presence on the regional bar scene since the 1970s, playing multiple sets each night in small clubs such as the Upbeat in Garden Grove and the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano. It was a hard-won musician’s existence that he and Alvin captured in their easygoing honky-tonk number “Six Nights a Week.”
“One of the things that may have hindered him commercially was that he couldn’t turn it on; he was a hundred percent honest,” recalled Alvin, who considered Gaffney his best friend. “If Chris is in a good mood, you get an amazing show; if he was in a bad mood, he wouldn’t hide it.”
As a songwriter, Gaffney was a peer of Alvin, Los Lobos, X and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in chronicling the life of Southern California. In “Artesia,” from the 1990 “Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts” album, he evoked memories of his teenage years cruising through the San Gabriel Valley — remembrances stirred by the scent of cow manure carried on the wind from inland dairy farms.
“The Gardens,” from the same album, and later recorded by Freddy Fender with the Texas Tornados, was an aching assessment of the void that gang violence leaves in a community’s heart — in this case, Hawaiian Gardens.
But many Gaffney songs reflect the dry, sometimes absurdist, sense of humor that stayed with him in his day-to-day life: “They made a mistake and they called it me,” he sang in one jaunty tune; in another lyrical self-description he pegs himself as “a dancing cretin with faraway eyes.”
Gaffney sang in a tuneful yet conversational voice that was both sandpapery and sweet. He had no pretentiousness about his music. In a 1992 Times interview, he described taking part in a songwriters panel at a folk festival: “The kids were asking, ‘How do you write songs?’ I said, ‘I’m sitting in front of the TV, having a beer, and something comes to my mind, and I go ‘what the hell’ and write it down.”
Born in 1950 in Vienna, Austria, he grew up mainly in Cypress, the son of a telephone company executive. Tall and solidly built, Gaffney excelled at track and cross country at Western High School in Anaheim and took his licks as a Golden Gloves boxer.
“I always ascribed his cockeyed view of the world to being beat around the head a few too many times,” Alvin said.
As he built a critically acclaimed recorded repertoire during the 1990s with three studio albums, including “Mi Vida Loca” and “Loser’s Paradise” for Hightone Records, Gaffney was unable to capitalize on it with touring — tied instead to his bar hero regimen on top of days spent scraping hulls at a Newport Beach boatyard.
Gaffney accepted the bar-musician’s lot with equanimity: “I was a working guy before becoming an unheralded roots-music recording eminence, and I continue to do that. If they don’t want to put out an album, I’ll go and do my day job,” he told The Times in 1999. What sustained him, he said, was “the music, and I love the people. You surround yourself with good friends, and you’re good to go.”
Starting in 1999, though, Gaffney got to live the life of a musical road warrior, with Alvin and then the Hacienda Brothers, touring extensively through the United States and Europe. Alvin said he soon learned not to give Gaffney a weekly advance on his meal money: “He’d give it to some homeless guy or a guy standing at a rest stop begging for change.”
With the Hacienda Brothers, who blended classic country and rhythm and blues styles, Gaffney recorded two studio albums and a live release. In December, he and Alvin recorded the song “Two Lucky Bums,” a mellow duet to friendship:
Let’s make a toast to the times we’ve had
The good, the crazy, the rough and the bad.
We’ve survived every one, a couple of losers who won,
And when it’s all said and done, we’re two lucky bums.
“He might have gone out early, but he did everything he wanted to do,” said Greg Gaffney, who played bass beside his brother through many of the bar years. “He loved being on the road, happy in a van with a bunch of buffoons.”
In addition to his brother Greg of Costa Mesa, survivors include his wife, Julie, of Costa Mesa; daughter Erika of Houston; sister Helen of Oakland; and brother Robert of Vancouver, Canada.
Services are pending.