On the Billboard charts, Jann Browne and Chris Gaffney don't even qualify as lightweights.
On the Times Orange County chart, these two wide-ranging, country-based roots-music performers rate as the heaviest of the heavy. Their co-billed concert at the Coach House on Friday is a gala event, at least on our calendar.
Since 1990, Gaffney has released two studio albums, Browne three. Looking back on my year-end best-of lists for the past five years, I found the following numbers: Gaffney's 1990 release "Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts" ranked third for the year, behind Neil Young and John Hiatt. In 1992, Gaffney released "Mi Vida Loca" and moved up to No. 2, with Los Lobos' "Kiko" ahead of him.
And in 1994, Browne's "Count Me In," her declaration of artistic independence after an early-'90s attempt to fit into Nashville's commercial machinery, was No. 1 in my pop universe, ahead of R.E.M. and all the rest.
Browne, at 40, and Gaffney, 44, have been fixtures on the Orange County music scene since the 1970s; recording opportunities came belatedly to both. Gaffney has been the quintessential local barroom hero whose reputation has spread beyond Southern California only by word of mouth and the rare touring jaunt.
Browne notched a solid roots-music credential in the early '80s when she spent two years as a member of the hard-touring band Asleep at the Wheel. She briefly seemed to have a future in the country mainstream when her debut album, "Tell Me Why," spent six months on the charts in 1990 and yielded two Top 20 country radio hits, "You Ain't Down Home" and "Tell Me Why."
But her follow-up album, "It Only Hurts When I Laugh," didn't sell, and Browne had concluded by late 1992 that it was pointless to try to fit somebody else's mold. She declared a "no boundaries" artistic policy that reaped an astonishingly swift and convincing payoff with "Count Me In."
Gaffney's and Browne's shared excellence rests on some shared traits: a rare gift for melody (the indispensable quality of great pop songwriting), a willingness to let their imaginations run free, a wide stylistic and emotional range and an ability to find and keep exceptional backing players.
So what's held them back from Billboard's charts?
Mainly the difficulty that musicians face when their core inspiration comes from country music but their artistic metabolism recoils from the slickness, superficiality and adherence to formula that the Nashville system too often embraces.
Browne's song "One Tired Man," an aching, close-in portrait of a man killing himself with booze, doesn't tie up the loose ends of experience in a nice, symmetrical bow; its thrill lies precisely in the fact that it leaves you feeling frayed and opened to the raw side of life. Such zestful Gaffney songs as "Psychotic Girlfriend" and "I Never Grew Up" proclaim that life's most piquant pleasures can't be bought in familiar ready-made packages, but require holding your breath, plunging ahead and embracing the merrily absurd possibilities.
Shunted aside in their native marketplace, Browne and Gaffney have looked elsewhere for an audience. Browne began playing in Europe while still under contract to Curb Records in 1990-91; since '93 she has made regular visits overseas. "I love traveling, and I have a wonderful (European) following, an audience that isn't judgmental about music," she said recently. "They don't try categorizing it all the time. It lets me be me."
Last year she took the even-harder-to-categorize Gaffney along with her for his first overseas trip, and he since has made several return excursions on his own. Far from clashing as rivals, the two have been friendly peers. Gaffney played the accordion on Browne's fetching album track "Red Moon Over Lugano," and the two recently teamed with Matt Barnes, Browne's lead guitarist and frequent collaborator, to write a song with the enticing title "My Baby's Got a Dead Man's Number."
For Browne, who lives in Laguna Hills, the Coach House concert will be her first in Orange County since May. Gaffney, who is from Costa Mesa, and his band, the Cold Hard Facts, can be heard playing four sets every Wednesday night at the Canyon Inn in Yorba Linda. These free-admission affairs are wide-ranging excursions, devoted largely to tasty cover songs, that find the band branching from the country, rock and Tex-Mex blend found on Gaffney's albums into blues and soul. The Coach House show will give Gaffney a chance to leave behind the bar-band routine chronicled on his wryly hangdog song "Six Nights a Week" and to stretch out for a full set of originals.