The Faces of "New" Country Buck and Hag Revisted by Lee Nichols

Bakersfield, California, is a pretty unassuming little city. With a population of only about 150,000 and few tall buildings, it seems more like the rural towns that surround it. It's a placid, quiet facade that belies the city's extreme importance in the history of country music.

In the Sixties, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard both emerged from this setting and grabbed world by the ear with a new sound. It was a guitar-heavy, edgy sound that rebelled against the pop leanings of Nashville (excepting Johnny Cash and George Jones). Owens and Haggard did things their way, shunning Nashville studios and session players, recording instead in locales of their choosing with their own bands. Sounds like a certain small city in Texas, doesn't it? Austin's country musicians have certainly run a similar path, especially since a certain bunch of rednecks decided to grow their hair long and record here and in New York in the early Seventies.

In recent years, however, the course of Lone Star twangers has gone from a parallel of the Bakersfield scene to a direct emulation. The long hair and scraggly beards have increasingly been replaced, at least among the new breed, with slicked-backs haircuts and Nudie suits (or at least affordable imitations thereof). But until now, the resemblance was merely noticeable. Now, with the simultaneous release of albums by the Derailers and Dale Watson on the city's dance scene, it's become downright eerie. To cut right to the point, the Derailers are Buck Owens & the Buckaroos. Almost literally. And whenever they play, you can bet Watson is in the club down the street doing his best Merle Haggard.

This is doing nothing to fend off the criticism that Austin's country scene is "stuck in the past," as many have alleged, out of sync with the demands of today's country radio. In fact, both acts take it as a compliment, and Watson considers the whole "throwback" notion invalid. "I bring up the Derailers a lot," says Watson, "because people say, `Well, they're like a parody.' I say no, no, no, people like Don Walser, the Derailers, Cornell Hurd... just because you write a song that sounds like an old song doesn't mean you're doing old music. Just the opposite. To me it means you're doing roots, what you grew up with. There are roots in the country music on the radio today, but they're firmly embedded in Seventies pop music. They transplanted it right out of that. It's `roots pop.' God, what an awful term. `Roots pop' - it's enough to make you have a nightmare."

"It's not `retro,' maintains Derailers bassist Vic Ziolkowski. "It's not a Bakersfield Sha-Na-Na or something. Everybody brings their new angles in on it. It's honest. It's not a shtick, it's not a show." Certainly not. The past year of their respective careers has been spent carving out unique niches in a scene that prizes individuality. But you also can't deny that when Brian Hofeldt starts cutting out guitar licks for the Derailers, he sounds like Buckaroos guitarist Don Rich reincarnated. And when he chimes in with vocalist Tony Villanueva, those harmonies could easily pass for Buck and Don. Just listen to Watson's drawl and try to keep Merle out of your mind. Hell, the man even looks like Haggard. So the "problem," if you want to call it that, isn't that they're stuck in the past - it's that they're stuck in country. Real country. No Eagles or Poco for these boys; serve 'em something strong, like George Jones or Johnny Cash.

Ironically, while this trend has been going on for some time now, both acts are newcomers to the Austin scene. Prior to their ascendancy, the central-city dance scene (not to be confused with the completely separate cover-band country dancers on the outskirts of town) had been dominated by the "Chaparral clique," the close-knit, musically incestuous players who could be found playing in Monte Warden's Wagoneers, Kelly Willis' Radio Ranch, and Chaparral (or one of its many offshoot bands). But Willis rose to national semi-stardom, the Wagoneers and Chaparral broke up, Warden busied himself recording and touring, and the Millionaire Playboys haven't been heard from in a while. With perfect timing, the Derailers and Watson stepped into the vacuum.

Villanueva stepped in it, so to speak, one day before dawn about four years ago. He was living in Oregon with Hofeldt, exploring a mutual interest in hard-core country, when he just decided it was time for a change. "The day before - he says he gave me more notice - but the day before he says to me `I'm thinking of moving,' laughs Hofeldt. "And then the next day he wakes me up at six in the morning and says `I'm moving. I'll see you later.' We shook hands and there it was.

"But he wrote me postcards, and said `I came here to Austin and this town's great, man, you gotta come down here.'

So finally, in 1993, Hofeldt did. The pair picked up where they left off, working on harmonies and trying to come up with the same kind of finely crafted lyrics that their heroes sing. It wasn't long before things started to click between the two of them, and audiences quickly took notice. Word got around, and the newcomers suddenly found themselves getting booked both in the city clubs and rural dancehalls, packing in the two-steppers. They actually started out in the country areas, which is hard territory for city bands playing original numbers.

"Early on, we had a lot of those beer-joint gigs from here to Lockhart," says Villanueva. "That was a good learning experience, and the gigs paid a lot better than here in town. And having to do four sets, that'll make a man of you. The jukebox was always Tracy Byrd or whatever the hell all night long, but we didn't have any problem - we'd just start out with a Hank Williams song and people caught on."

Soon, they found themselves in the regular Wednesday night slot at the Continental Club, which had proven a strong audience-building vehicle for other bands. But while the journey has been quick, it's also been a bit rocky. Since their inception, the Derailers have struggled to keep a steady rhythm section, with drummers and bassists playing a game of musical chairs. But one of the slots was finally nailed down last fall by Ziolkowski, a veteran Austin bassist. You've probably heard him in Three Balls of Fire, Hell's Cafe, or, most notably, his five-year stint with Two Hoots & a Holler. That was where he first heard Brian and Tony; their band opened for his.

"Then, later, I went to see a whole Sunday night gig when they filled in for Junior Brown (at his regular Continental Club gig)," Ziolkowski says. "I really enjoyed it; I could see the spark of something happening, and then I weaseled my way into the band." Ziolkowski provides the connecting bridge between the Derailers and the old Chaparral scene - he was in the original version of that band as they began their rise during the early Black Cat Lounge scene. "I guess it's come full circle," he says. So much so, in fact, that Dale Watson can be found there every Thursday night. The 32-year-old Watson hasn't been quite as quick to build up a crowd as the Derailers, but that's starting to change. Anybody who can fill in for Don Walser while he's out of town will get noticed.

Watson has been a professional musician for 15 years, a journey that has taken him from cover bands in Pasadena, Texas, and then to Los Angeles (at the invitation of Rosie Flores), Nashville, back to the Houston area, and finally to Austin. He seems ready to stop his traveling, being very satisfied with a town where no one will ever tell him he's "too country." "I want to die here," Watson declares. "I love this town. It's a good place to raise children, it's a good place artistically, the crowds are very open to what you're doing, they're not judgmental. They let you express your opinion."

Which is good for Watson - opinions come pretty easily for him, on anything from politics to music. As you've may have already guessed, the contemporary Nashville scene gets him pretty heated. He refers to Garth Brooks as "the anti-Hank"; he calls Garth's numerous clones "pretty boys"; and let's just say his description of line dancing is less than politically correct. Some might say he's throwing away a golden opportunity with such an attitude - his voice is certainly smooth enough for a major label. But during the time he spent in Nashville, some of it spent recovering from an auto wreck, Watson gave some serious thought to where his artistry was headed.

"I was miserable, writing music that I didn't like and wouldn't do today," he says. "That made me ask myself, `What do I really want to do?' To make other people happy, I could write this shit, throw on a cowboy hat and a shirt with dopey patterns, and do what these guys are doing and probably get a deal. But it just wasn't in my heart, man, it was eating me alive."

Talks with record execs were, as you might imagine, frustrating. "Their exact words were, `This is too country for what's going on now.' The guy over at Arista said `Well this would have been a hit 25 years ago, this would have been a hit 30 years ago.' And at the time, they had a hit on Steve Wariner with `Tips of My Fingers,' an old Charley Pride hit. I just didn't like the way their perception of country music was. Still don't."

The moral of this story would have to be "Go to Austin, be happy." Obviously, both Watson and the Derailers are. They both have albums out now, the Derailers' CD-only Live Tracks and Watson's Cheatin' Heart Attack (the latter on HighTone, one of the most prestigious minor labels in America for roots music). They're both making their own music - 80 percent of the music on the two discs combined are originals. And they're doing it their way. While Watson's voice is very clearly the star of Cheatin' Heart Attack, he felt it was important to use his own band, Lone Star, as well - something he'd never have been allowed to do in you-know-where. Of course, when you have bassist Craig Pettigrew (ex of the Wagoneers) and guitarist Dave Biller ("he's a cross between Roy Nichols and James Burton"), you'd better find a place for them somewhere on the record.

"I really wanted to record with the same band that I play with live," says Watson. "That was the deal with HighTone, and they were real supportive of that. That's something I miss. I remember listening to George Jones records, Hag, Buck Owens, and they'd always have an instrumental by the Buckaroos or the Strangers or the Jones Boys. I miss that, because that was their sound. They were saying, `Okay, this is my sound, and now I'm gonna let you hear the guys that give me my sound.' There's two songs on the record that the guys didn't help me write the words, but they got half writer's credits because they helped me arrange it or something."

But when Watson did need some help to round out the sound of Lone Star, he did pretty good - the better-known names include the legendary Jimmy Day playing steel on three tracks, replaced by the Pure Texas Band's Scott Walls on several others; Gene Elders of George Strait's Ace in the Hole Band on fiddle, former Asleep at the Wheeler Floyd Domino on piano, and Ted Roddy on harmonica.

The Derailers - who, incidentally, also used the in-demand Walls on steel - recorded their tracks on KUT's Live Set program last fall with no intention of turning it into an album, but were more pleased than they expected with what they got. "We've been really pleasantly surprised with the response we've gotten from people of all ages who are digging this new country, I mean, this old country sound once again," says Hofeldt. "It's like new to some people, and to other people, it's like, `Man, this is real country!'"

"Our plan was to credit Ed Miller (producer of the Live at Henry's tapes) as our spiritual producer or something," Ziolkowski says. "He didn't actually do the mixing, but he was in the room and sort of provided the sound before we started. He said `I want it to sound like a 1959 or 1960 honky-tonk record,' with that big bass, with that big sort of mono sound. And I think it nailed it." Oh well, so much for not being a retro act. n

"Early on, we had a lot of those beer-joint gigs from here to Lockhart," says Villanueva. "That was a good learning experience, and having to do four sets, that'll make a man of you."

To cut right to the point, the Derailers are Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. And whenever they play, you can bet Dale Watson is in the club down the street doing his best Merle Haggard.

"It's not `retro,' maintains Derailers bassist Vic Ziolkowski. "It's not a Bakersfield Sha-Na-Na or something. Everybody brings their new angles in on it. It's honest. It's not a shtick. It's not a show."

Watson refers to Garth Brooks as "the anti-Hank;" he calls Garth's numerous clones "pretty boys" and let's just say his description of line dancing is less than politically correct.

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