A new gospel according to Tony Villanueva
New Year's Eve 2003 marked the last gig by the Derailers as Austin knows them. After more than a decade of nonstop touring and recording, Tony Villanueva, one half of the group's genial singing-songwriting tandem, is getting off the merry-go-round in order to spend more time with his family and work on his career as a songwriter.
According to the Derailers' other mainstay, Brian Hofeldt, the group will continue, though in a fashion yet to be determined. Their next gig is scheduled for early March at the Broken Spoke, with a proper debut of the new lineup scheduled for SXSW.
"Tony and I have been singing together almost every day for 11 years," says Hofeldt. "Those are some mighty big shoes to fill. There are lots of people calling, so we might bring in someone new. We might not. I don't look at it as an ending, though. It's more like a chapter has closed, and now we get to see what's next.
"Tony and I will always be great friends; there's no animosity involved. We'll still perform his songs and whatever he has to offer us in the future."
The two met in Portland, Ore., in the mid-Eighties, playing together in cowpunk bands. Villanueva moved to Texas first in 1990, and Hofeldt followed in 1993. Since then, they've been Austin's version of Lennon and McCartney -- through five studio albums and tours that have taken them around the world. While the Derailers' music combined their love of Buck Owens and the Beatles, the mix was invigorating, original, and undeniably country.
Austin Chronicle: What led to this decision?
Tony Villanueva: One thing really: a change of heart. It has nothing to do with the band. It's about priorities, and my priorities are at home. There was a conflict to wearing both hats.
We'd drawn back -- didn't travel as much; we had done up to 300 dates a year. A lot of times it was more than one show a day -- it was two or three, and it added up. So we stopped traveling as much, and it was much better to be around and do more with my wife and kids.
But after a while, I realized that in order to push forward as a Derailer, I needed to get out there more and work harder. I thought, "I know what I gotta do. I know what it takes, and I don't want to do that anymore. I want to stay home and work on writing songs."
AC: On the last record, Genuine, you co-wrote mainly with people from Nashville. Are you planning on building on that?
TV: Yeah. About three years ago, I became a staff writer at Sony-Tree, [a Nashville-based music publisher]. I've been co-writing since just before Full Western Dress, which came out in 1999. I've done some writing in Austin with people like Monte Warden and Bruce Robison outside of the band. Now I plan on doing a lot of that. Going to Nashville for a week or so at a time and working hard there.
AC: Will that pay the bills?
TV: I'm on salary, so the bills are paid [laughs].
AC: What was the band's reaction when you told them you were leaving?
TV: It was hard, because it's our income, and not only that, but we're a great unit, which is a rare and hard thing to find. Not only did we get along well musically, we got along well traveling and being together. We've been through a lot together. Through all that time, we've been seasoned and matured, both musically and personally. We're pretty functional [laughs], and it was really fun.
That's really the hardest thing to walk away from: a good band that's easy to get along with. But I think everybody was supportive, disappointed in some ways but supportive, because they knew the reason I made the decision. I think that's why we got along so well. Family is important to everybody, and for me to say, "I can't do this anymore because of my family," they all respected that. It may have been difficult, but they respect it and support it.
AC: The band's record label, Lucky Dog, picked up the option for another album. Was that hard to walk away from?
TV: That was the hardest phone call to make. When Brian and I made that phone call to [Sony Nashville label head] John Grady, it was tough. He told us that they had just spent a few days discussing ideas for the next record. Grady had been involved with the making of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and has worked with a bunch of artists that we respect and felt a kinship to musically. So walking away from a chance to work with him wasn't easy.
AC: Is there a particular Derailers' gig that sticks out in your mind?
TV: [Long pause] There's a few of them; I'm not sure I can just say one. This one encompasses what got us where we are. We'd already gotten to meet Buck [Owens] through Casper Rawls, who put on Buck's birthday party at the Continental Club. One year, Buck showed up. That really got us going as a band.
Not long afterward, Buck invited us to play his birthday party at his club, the Crystal Palace, in Bakersfield. Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, and a bunch of other people played. The thing for us, though, was that we were on the ticket, we were the band. After we played a set, Marty and Dwight came out and joined us. That was really awesome. Just being there was special, but getting to play with those guys, who had a major influence on me and on the forming of the band, was even better.
At one point, I played bass in a band that covered Dwight's songs; we played songs from the Wagoneers, Foster & Lloyd, all that stuff was happening around then. I didn't sleep that night. I remember hanging out with Jim Lauderdale all night. I didn't sleep for three days.
We had played a festival in Portland the day before, had a club gig that night, and right after that, we drove all night to get to Bakersfield. We got there just in time for sound check. I still remember the sun coming up while we were driving through southern Oregon, listening to Merle Haggard on the Art Bell show. It was a very memorable experience.
AC: Are you ready to be retired now?
TV: It's been the life of Riley being in the band. We've traveled around the world. It's the kind of stuff I wouldn't have dreamed I'd do until retirement. It's been that kind of life, so I don't imagine that I'll ever really retire. I'm just gonna work; there's lots to do around the house.
AC: Has the band ever taken an extended break?
TV: I don't think we've ever taken more than 10 days off.
AC: That's got to grind.
TV: It's out of passion. You've got to love it. I love it, but I love my family more, and I just made a choice.
AC: Is it true you were recently born again?
AC: Did that have any effect on this decision?
TV: Absolutely. It's changed my perspective.
AC: Will that affect your songwriting?
TV: It already has.
AC: It what way?
TV: In what I write about. I recently wrote a really cool gospel song with Monte Warden, and I've written some on my own. I'm looking forward to doing some more of that. But it's mixed in with subject matter that's always been a part of my songwriting. I'm trying to do it in a certain way: good songs about good things and good values. I think there's common ground to be found in songwriting that reflects my belief and still means something to people who may not share my beliefs, yet still enjoy the music.
AC: What was the turning point?
TV: In 1999. More recently I've been more fervent about it. But it's really more like the way I was brought up. Sort of like a reborn again [laughs]. In church circles, I was born again when I was about 8 years old. I knew what I was doing at the time. I was very serious about it. My first music was church music. I moved to Portland to pursue secular music. I've come full circle. In 1999, I felt like I came out of a spiritual coma.
AC: Was there something that led to that?
TV: I quit drinking.
AC: Do you plan on performing as a solo act?
TV: I've got some things in the works -- some songwriters nights here and around Texas that I plan on doing. I might get to play at the Bluebird in Nashville. But it's not going to be my focus. For the next six months, I'm not going to concern myself with being a performer. I just want to concentrate on writing.