For 20 years, the sound of Greyhound Soul has filled Tucson bars.
At the center of constantly shifting lineups—from double drummers or double keys to a stripped-down three-piece—and ever-changing styles—from haunting blues to hard, pounding rock—there has always been the incomparable, raspy voice of singer-songwriter Joe Peña.
And while Greyhound Soul's songs have found audiences in Texas, Germany and up the road in Phoenix, the band has always been purely Tucson, like the desert highways, quenching rain and whiskey buzzes of Peña's songs.
"Twenty years is a long time and it's been nonstop," says the nonchalant Peña. "Writing songs never stopped and luckily we have each other to facilitate those tunes and we get together and it seems to work."
Raised in Elgin, Texas, Peña's first musical love was playing drums.
"I learned a lot of instruments growing up. My father is a musician, my grandfather is a musician and there were instruments all around the house all the time. I played guitar even before I picked up drums but I put that away. I liked playing drums more than anything else. Still, there's no place I'd rather be sitting than behind a kit," he says.
But some of the effort involved in drumming in bands got annoying and Peña returned to the guitar.
"Hauling my drums from rehearsal to rehearsal was a pain in the ass when the other guys were showing up with just a little amp," he says. "Playing guitar and singing wasn't something I really planned. I was just tired of carrying drums around all the time. I just thought I could do just as good a job as anyone else playing guitar and singing."
For Greyhound Soul, Peña recruited the rhythm section from the metal band Shok Hilary, finding in bassist Duane Hollis and drummer Alan Anderson his longest-running and most frequent collaborators. Other mainstays over the years have included guitarists Jason DeCorse, Robin Johnson, Larry Vance and Oliver Ray; keyboardists Glen Corey and Bobby Hepworth; drummers Bruce Halper, Tommy Larkins and Winston Watson; and the late Kevin Pate on bass.
"People would move away and we'd have to find someone else to replace them or I'd have to learn to play better leads or find other ways to make it work," Peña says. "Through that process happening over and over and over again, it pushed everything to change on a regular basis and it became something we got comfortable doing. Not doing the same thing all the time anymore seems more interesting for us."
Greyhound Soul's first album, Freaks, came in 1996, followed by three more: Alma de Galgo (2001), Down (2002) and Tonight and Every Night (2007), with Peña's growth as a songwriter evident as the band progressed.
"I don't know what making up songs is supposed to be for me," Peña says. "If something comes up when I have a guitar in my hand I'll sing it or hum it and I'll be in a place where whatever came up made me feel better and they'd become songs that we'd play. I'm just a guy who gets shit off his chest and it turns into songs.
"There'd be times I'd just be sitting there with a guitar and these songs would come up. I didn't sit there and write words down back then. I just kept them in my head and every time we'd play another word would come into my head. So these things I'd make up would just stick with me and we'd learn them and play them," he says. "Not all of them would make sense but there was definitely a vibe in there and it wasn't maybe until the third record that I felt like I was getting a little clearer vision of what a song is supposed to be."
Greyhound Soul—whose steady gigs had Peña operating two versions of the band for a time while he was living in Phoenix so he could easily play either city—will welcome back DeCorse and Johnson from California for the 20th anniversary show March 8 at Che's Lounge, with Saint Maybe opening. On March 22, Greyhound Soul will return to the site of the band's March 11, 1994, debut at what was then Jaime's and is now Sky Bar, at 536 N. Fourth Ave.
"We're just having a good time and playing and the more the merrier most of the time. Lately we've been playing as a three-piece, but back then I couldn't play guitar as good as I can now, or maybe I was afraid to and hid behind other guitar players and a bunch of keys," Peña says. "Anymore, I feel pretty comfortable with just a guitar and Duane and Alan and just doing our songs. Some of the stuff stands up better than it ever did."
In the band's 21st year, there are plans for more recording and a new album.
"There's some Greyhound material that needs to be done, some things we've been playing for a while and some new stuff that hasn't even been touched," Peña says.