Heavy Western

The Derailers

The Derailers: (l-r) Mark Horn, Tony Villanueva, Brian Hofeldt, Ethan Shaw

photograph by John Carrico

Saturday night at the Continental Club. Wall to wall. Western shirts and hats sliding past taffeta and lipstick, high heels and high hair. Looks like a post-war party circa World War II until you notice the long hair, designer denim, and Doc Martens. Smoke hangs in the air, lowering the ceiling by a few feet and boxing in a din of clinking glasses and rising voices. The rectangle room with the perfect sight lines and sound lines is alive and electrified. Austin, Texas, y'all. The urban honky-tonk. The men in suits take the stage and stoke up their machine's boilers with a short instrumental, dancers swarming immediately and two-steppers eating up floor like piranhas. "My Heart's Ready" finds its author Tony Villanueva whetting his whistle at the mike, while Brian Hofeldt joins in on the harmonies. Ethan Shaw, the band's bass player for the last year, smiles from beneath the long shadows of his cowboy hat; both hat and suit look like they're a size too big, but neither probably is. Drummer Mark Horn (six months), country's version of John Bonham, pounds his wet hair wild, and the band's in-town steel player Marty Muse looks, well, bemused.

The band segues into another song from their aptly titled Watermelon Records debut, Jackpot, a tune called "100% Pure Fool": "I'm one hundred percent, not ninety-nine and nine tenths." Damn straight, cowboy, the Derailers are 100%. Not ninety-nine and nine-tenths, one hundred percent. Question is, 100% pure what? Country, right? Sure. Only they don't sound like Don Walser, Dale Watson, or Wayne "The Train" Hancock. Alternative country? Derailers ain't no Reckless Kelly or Slobberbone, and the V-Roys open for them, not the other way around. Well son, it ain't rock & roll, is it? This isn't Wilco, Whiskeytown, or the Old 97s -- no Replacements in sight. No, no, the whole question is ridiculous; the Derailers are 100% pure country. Just listen to their albums.

On 1995's Live Tracks, recorded as a KUT LiveSet and released locally through Matt Eskey's Freedom Records, the band keeps its country collar freshly starched with Howard Kalish's fiddle playing and Scott Walls' pedal steel supporting Hofeldt, Villanueva, and original bassist Vic Gerrard. With five of its 14 tracks ending up on Jackpot the following year, Live Tracks lays the band's country foundation firmly in the mythical Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard -- a sound ex-Blaster great Dave Alvin enhanced greatly with his production on Jackpot. Back once more for the band's third and most recent album, Reverb Deluxe, Alvin again keeps things in the California desert dust, but this time, he lets the reverb twang just a little longer and a little louder. Dim, inadvertent shades of the Blasters? Live it is. And not so dim.

When the Derailers hit song number three at the Continental, "Can't Stop a Train" from Reverb Deluxe, the band's engine opens full throttle and the train races down a long stretch of steel like greased lightning. Villanueva, slick black hair and the best eyebrows in the business, rears back from the mike, playing rhythm while Hofeldt, looking like he could have stepped out of Nashville any time in the last 50 years with his cowlick and cocky grin, plays jangley lead lines on his sparkling Telecaster. Together, side by side, back to back, they look like a couple of matinee idols -- a casting agent's dream of what honky-tonkers should look like. Villanueva flashes his million-dollar grin -- his eyes smiling -- and arches an eyebrow. There is no derailing this train.

Because tonight the clocks turn back, the Derailers play 'til 3am, Hofeldt and Villanueva trading lead vocal duties, harmonies, and guitar licks. It's hard to believe all that reverb and twang is coming from two sole Fender amps -- though sometimes you'd swear they were about to break into a surf tune -- and there's no shortage of Carl Perkins panache to go around. It`s a long, beer-soaked night, and by the end everyone is exhausted. One hundred percent, not ninety-nine and nine-tenths. Question is, 100% what?

"I totally agree," says Villanueva a few days later and a few blocks down from the Continental -- at Ego's -- where he and his musical alter ego Hofeldt are drinking scotch.

"When you think of a band, you think of rock & roll -- or a garage band. You don't necessarily think of country. You know, country is predominantly one guy and then his back-up band. But bands have always been important. The Strangers were as important to Merle Haggard's sound as Merle Haggard himself. The Strangers were important, the Buckaroos of Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours -- they always had bands. But when you think of country, you think of the singular people, the one or two band-leaders."

"People like to pick a person to identify with in a band," agrees Hofeldt. "Harkening back to what you were saying about all the Buck Owens comparisons [we get], what he and Merle were doing with their sound in Bakersfield, it was very different from what was going on in Nashville at the time. Like Buck Owens himself said, people came out expecting to hear `Tumblin' Tumbleweeds' at a country music show, and they came out with these Telecasters blaring, and they were like a rock & roll band playing country music. But he was country to his heart."

"Country to the bone," asserts Villanueva. "It was country music."

"That's the way we feel, too," says Hofeldt.

"We feel like we're a country band, but a country band and a garage rock & roll band use the same instruments," says Villanueva. "Pretty much."

Brian and Tony, a casting agent's dream

photograph by John Carrico

"I think we do rock," chimes in Hofeldt. "Without trying to brag on ourselves, I think we rock. And a lot of people tell us so. We've heard this countless times: `I don't like country music, but I like what you guys do.' It doesn't matter whether we have a pedal steel; we have Marty Muse playing with us, and that guy rocks."

So then is the opposite true? Do folks who love their country music say you're too rock & roll for them?

"Fortunately, we don't put ourselves in that position much with mainstream country fans," answers Villanueva.

"But I think some of them do," says Hofeldt, the one-two tandem of their conversational style kicking in again. "This new movement of country artists (like Garth Brooks) has opened up acceptance of country music whether it be in the mainstream or another big scene being created that people want an alternative to -- there's a wider acceptance of twangier-sounding music."

The whole "Americana" thing.

"Yeah, the `Americana' thing," says Hofeldt. "And also this `Alternative Country' thing. I don't think we're playing alternative country, but it's alternative to what's in the mainstream, and I think the field's been opened up. Country music's been huge in the past 10 years, and people have an ear for music that has fiddles and steel guitar in it, but they don't want what's coming out of certain specific artists. That's why there are alternative artists to the mainstream."

But hasn't the whole alt-country movement just turned out to be rock & roll bands throwing around some twang? Country music, at its core, is just pop songs with twang, isn't it?

"The kinda country I like generally, I think it is," says Hofeldt.

"Yeah. I mean, country, that's a pretty big category," puts in Villanueva. "There's so many different parts of it. But I think the essential element of country music is just real heartfelt songs with good melodies, which could be interpreted as popular -- pop hooks. What I find funny is the country music that we draw from, which I'd say is predominantly the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties -- Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens, George Jones, Ray Price--"

"Jerry Lee Lewis," injects Hofeldt.

":... Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and so I'm saying rock & roll and country, but they're so close."

"And they're all popular forms of music," injects Hofeldt again.

"Those are our main things we draw from," finishes Villanueva. "And the funny thing is, pop-rock music in the Seventies drew a lot from that -- drew a lot from the kind of music we like. What's funny now is that country music of today is drawing from rock music of the Seventies, which was drawing from hardcore country music. So, it's kinda like it went from Nashville to L.A., from L.A. to Nashville, and now today's modern country music, for the most part, is kinda recycled Seventies pop-rock, country-rock -- mostly pop."

You mean, the Beatles?!?!? They're an influence, too?

"Hell yeah," says Hofeldt.

"Beatles and I'd say there's some Stones there, too," says Villanueva. "And Kinks."

"And Everly Brothers," says Hofeldt. "They totally walked the line. Were they country or rock & roll? Or pop?

"I'd say they were country at the core, and then were able to go both ways," says Villanueva.

"And Buddy Holly, too," sneaks in Hofeldt.

"We're not out to preach any kind of gospel necessarily," explains Villanueva. "We're out to make the music."

Hofeldt and Villanueva began that process in the late Eighties when both Oregon natives were living in Portland. The latter musician says the flannel revolution was happening at the time, but neither he nor Hofeldt were paying much attention. They were busy in the Barnburners, a hard-rocking, Jason & the Scorchers-type outfit that wore cowboy hats and played Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash covers. Having met in the band as sidemen, the two were just getting down to some serious picking when Villanueva decided he was moving to Austin.

"We were sitting there and Tony said, `Yeah, I'm thinking of moving,'" recalls Hofeldt. "And I thought, `Yeah, sure. Okay.' At 6am the next morning, he shows up on my doorstep, saying, `Hey, dude, I'm just stopping to say goodbye to ya. I'm taking off.'"

Turns out Villanueva had made a detour to Austin while visiting his brother at Baylor. He liked what he saw, and once here he started writing back to Hofeldt, telling him about High Noon, Two Hoots & a Holler, and Ted Roddy. "He said, `This is the place where we have to be,'" remembers Hofeldt. Three years later, in 1993, he joined Villanueva in Austin. From there it only took two acoustic guitars, a rented P.A., several slots on the Pato's Tacos tour circuit, and some house-painting day gigs before the Derailers were born. That, and "17, 18, 19 -- 25 rhythm sections," laughs Hofeldt.

Now on album number three, Reverb Deluxe, the first of five contracted with Seymour Stein's resurrected Sire label, this musical partnership sees itself riding atop the wave of a new movement -- "the mindset of a generation." Twang. Not necessarily the "alternative country" of Bloodshot bands like the Waco Brothers or Skull Orchard -- though both agree that the alt-country club circuit has helped the Derailers immensely -- but rather the alternative country of Sixties-era Capitol Records: Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. "Roots music," says Hofeldt, pronouncing it "ruts."

And make no mistake, they insist, there is a movement -- being spearheaded in part by Austin's country contingent. It's a movement borne out of popular music's continual cycle; when things get too fat and bloated, along comes something new (in most cases something old) to tear it down. Working with a man who rode herd on just such a movement when he signed the Ramones to Sire 20 years ago -- Stein -- Villanueva and Hofeldt are ready to take their music to a country that's hungry for it. And just what do they call their brand of twang?

"Heavy Western," says Hofeldt.

"Heavy Western," says Villanueva. "That's a good description. The cool thing is -- and we don't have anything to prove it -- but [the Barnburners] opened up for Nirvana once.

"We were supposed to open for Cat Butt from Seattle, and they cancelled, so Nirvana came. Bleach had just come out, but I didn't know who the hell they were. They were nobodies, some four-piece. Kurt Cobain had stringy hair down to here. And I stayed through the whole set. I was just glued, `These guys are good.' I didn't really know this whole Portland/Seattle rock thing was happening. That wasn't where I was coming from."

"You weren't a heroin addict," laughs Hofeldt.

"I stuck around, for some reason," continues Villanueva, "Probably for the chicks. Then several months later, when I was working at Tower Records as Christmas help, someone put on Bleach. I didn't know who they were before [I saw them], and I hadn't heard anything since, and I was like, `Wow, I recognize these songs.' Song after song I was like, `I know that song. And I know that song.' By the fourth one, I went over and said, `Tim, who is this?'

"He's like, `This is Nirvana.'

"Oh, we opened for these dudes.

"`You did?!?!?!'

"`They were cool. They had hooks, very memorable hooks.'

"And I do feel good about me and Brian, and the fact that as much as our focus in the band has been country music -- and that's been my life since I was this tall -- we've played in a lot of different situations, a lot of different music. The variety is a slice of life. It's what makes America what it is. It's what makes the Derailers what they are."

"It's what makes us different from the Buckaroos or the Strangers," says Hofeldt. "It's what makes us contemporary. Like Buck says, `Watching you guys is like watching myself -- watching my life flash before me.'"

It's like watching the Derailers. One hundred percent Derailers.

Reverb Deluxe comes out next Tuesday, November 18, the same day as the Derailers in-store performance at Tower Records (12:30pm). The following Friday, November 21, the band celebrates with a Waterloo Records in-store (5pm), and a CD release party that night at the Continental Club. They also play Stubb's the following night, Saturday 22. Can't stop a train.

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