The Derailers Don Full Western Dress
One by one, the Derailers file into the ageless South Lamar watering hole known as the Broken Spoke. In an era where Austin night clubs are folding faster than a pair of deuces on poker night, James White's live music landmark holds its ground -- sacred ground to a quartet of honky-tonkers like the Derailers. Alternating the songs of Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart, Faron Young, and Lefty Frizzell with those penned by the group's founders/singers/guitarists, Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt, the local quartet attacks their sizable repertoire with the verve of a hot jazz or punk rock band, leaving the grateful two-steppers sweaty, smiling, and satisfied. Only this time, they're not here to play one of their marathon four-set Saturday night gigs, where the dance floor is packed tighter than the harmonies of "California Angel" and the sound of shuffling feet accompanies the musicians on stage. Tonight, the Derailers are here to discuss the impending release of their Sire debut Full Western Dress and a few heroes of their own.
Drummer Mark Horn arrives first. Large, friendly, the Toledo, Ohio native joined the band in the summer of 1997 after working in New York as a member of the late, lamented Blue Chieftains, and Nashville, where he beat the skins for underground artists such as Lonesome Bob. Equally able to swing with a feather-light touch or rock out loud and strong, Horn fits the Derailers as nicely as one of band idol Buck Owens' old Nudie suits.
Villanueva, happy to be home with his family after spending 300-plus days on the road last year, arrives next. Resplendent in a a retro-styled, embroidered double-pocket shirt, Villanueva is a walking reminder that the band's impeccable fashion sense is as sharp and distinctive as their songs (and the grooming pointers in their "Guide to Style" a few years back). When prodded, Villanueva reveals the source of his natty attire: Sears.
Tall, blond Hofeldt surfaces not long after, sporting sunglasses and a lively grin. He explains that new bassist Ed Adkins is back home in Ohio, consulting for the computer company he started. Marty Muse, local contender for Lloyd Maines' steel crown, plays with the band in the studio and in town, but doesn't travel with the band. These three will do. They are the Derailers.
The saga of the Derailersbegins in last decade, the Eighties, in Portland, Oregon, where Villanueva and Hofeldt played in various bands before Villanueva moved to Austin in 1990 "for the music." Hofeldt followed in 1993, soon after which the Derailers were born. By 1995, they were already one of the Austin country scene's biggest draws, thanks to a popular Continental Club happy-hour gig and Live Tracks, more or less the band's live show, recorded on KUT's Sunday night LiveSet program and released on local indie Freedom Records.
While the Villanueva/Hofeldt axis remained constant over this period, the two friends thick as thieves, the band cycled through a succession of bassists (Vic Gerard, Ethan Shaw) and drummers (Lisa Pankratz, Terry Kirkendall). After signing to Watermelon Records, Austin's onetime beacon indie, the Derailers released their full-length debut Jackpot! in 1996, and then followed it up with 1997's Reverb Deluxe, released jointly by Watermelon and Seymour Stein's resurrected Warner Bros. imprint, Sire. This is, more or less, when the incessant touring began. Today, Villanueva estimates the Derailers have traveled more than 140,000 miles since the release of Reverb Deluxe.
And now comes Full Western Dress. Helmed once again by Jackpot!/Reverb Deluxe producer Dave Alvin, revered for his own musical and songwriting prowess, as well as for stints in L.A.-based roots/punk legends the Blasters and X, the Derailers' fourth full-length is once again cast in the same stainless steel twang and tight vocal harmonies from which all the group's previous efforts have been forged. More than simply being a sleek and solid country-western effort, Full Western Dress is an unabashed appreciation of American music -- check out the band's cover of prom classic "Then She Kissed Me."
"[The new album] reflects some growth from us having traveled and having spent a lot of time together as a band," explains Hofeldt. "We talk about what we like and have in common, but I think there have been bits and pieces of what we have on Full Western Dress all along. Maybe we had the opportunity to spend more time in the studio being on a major label now and it gave us more time to concentrate on the songs and making an album."
"I think we more fully explore some of our influences on this album," Villanueva adds. "There are some things we were freed up to do. We did some dates with the Mavericks, and that had some impact on us. Those guys dig a wide variety of music and put it into their sound."
Other times on the road, the capricious circumstances of touring dictated what path the band followed. "When our tape deck broke in the van, all we could listen to was the radio," Villanueva says. "A lot a times, the only thing we could agree on was the oldies station."
Bouncing between the poles of country and pop as they do, the band is especially appreciative of the era when long-held genre boundaries began to blur like squiggly, hallucinogenic lines.
"The Sixties were a period of huge growth in music and recording," says Hofeldt. "People's minds were expanding as far as what could fit into music. It was an amazing time."
"Mind-expanding," Villanueva interjects to laughter all around. "At the heart of that, really, is that there were a lot of great songs, too."
The aforementioned "Then She Kissed Me," outfitted in boots and bolo tie on Full Western Dress, is a prime example. "That was always one of our favorites," says Villanueva of Phil Spector's pop nugget. "To make that song as a country song, you have to understand that a Harlan Howard song and a Brill Building song aren't that far apart."
"People like Roger Miller and Willie Nelson were pop writers as much as they were country writers," concurs Hofeldt.
""Lovesick Blues' was a pop tune," posits Horn. "Shania Twain wasn't what I heard as country music growing up. Actually, when I heard stuff like that on the radio growing up, I'd switch stations. There have always been elements of pop in country. Countrypolitan and Patsy Cline were pop at the core, but rhythmically, it was country music. Buck Owens loved both Chuck Berry and the Beatles."
Which is how the Derailers ultimately see themselves: as a country band writing three-minute pop songs. Eleven of 13 tracks on Full Western Dress clock in under 3:13. On this, the band's best album, all their musical influences, from legendary Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard to swamp-pop cult icon Lazy Lester, converge in the studio.
"Just to Spend the Night With You," for instance, features Beatlesque vocals double-tracked by a barely recognizable Hofeldt. With its la-la-las, doot-doots, harmonica, and surf guitar, the song recalls the beach-baked sounds of Gary Lewis & the Playboys and the Turtles. Still, it's not out of place when sandwiched between the tearful ballad "Me, Myself & I" (featuring Gene Elders and Floyd Domino on fiddle and piano respectively) and the rockabilly stomp of "(I'm Gonna) Love, Love, Love You." As always, the band also flouts its fine-tuned Bakersfield twang on "Someone Else's Problem," before the man himself, Buck Owens turns up for "Play Me the Waltz of the Angels." In fact, the band was so thrilled to have Owens recording with them that the track was added to Full Western Dress at the last minute -- after advance pressings were sent out to the media.
"When I'd go up to Nashville, I'd go to Harlan's office and write with [Howard protegé] Rory Lee," says Villanueva. "The last time I was there, Rory told me there was a song he wrote with Dennis Knudson, who wrote for Buck's publishing company. Dennis had the idea that a band like us would record it and that a legend would sing an older man's part in it. That's the song: This older man is down in the dumps at this dance and the younger man asks if there's a song they could play, and he says play me the "Waltz of the Angels,'" referring to the Wynn Stewart classic.
"We left a demo of it with Buck on New Year's Eve," continues Villanueva. "He got back to us a few weeks later and said he loved the song, but there was something we might not know -- that he played guitar on "Waltz of the Angels.' It was an odd series of coincidences, but once he said he wanted to do it, we said, "We have to make this work.' Since it wasn't part of the original recording plans, it required rearranging some things."
Since it was Buck Owens (!), naturally they did just that. Better still, after writing with Villanueva, Rory Lee caught the band at a South by Southwest showcase and became an instant fan, bringing none other than Harlan Howard to the Derailers' first show in Nashville. Howard was so impressed he immediately wanted to meet the band.
"Rory has taken Brian and I out to lunch with Harlan on a couple of occasions and that's been just great," gushes Villanueva.
"It's like going to Disneyland," adds Hofeldt. "Harlan taught us a lot. He's real critical about songs and how great they have to be, how perfect each word and each turn of phrase has to be. He still strives to write great songs, and he prodded us in a firm but kind way. It was great to have someone that you look up to like that take an interest in what you're doing."
"He a perfectionist for sure," chuckles Villanueva. "Nothing's wasted. Everything's gotta be just right. If it's not, have somebody else write it."
The band's relationship with producer Alvin is also crucial to the ease with which they've handled the call-up to the major labels.
"We put our trust in Dave to help us make the best record we could," says Villanueva. "He knows sound well. He also fully understands where we're coming from, but has enough separation from us to be objective. He's been a good person to guide us, and every record we've made some steps."
After 350 gigs in 15 months, the Derailers are on track. Better road-tested than a new strain of tire rubber, the band's tour schedule following the release of Reverb Deluxe was "pretty insane," according to Villanueva, who estimates the band made five full trips around the country. That's what you have to do, however, he sighs; you have to play gigs if you want to make a living. The addition of bassist Ed Adkins has given the group a much-needed stability.
"He was the first person to try out for us actually," explains Hofeldt, "but we tried out a few others before we realized he was the one we wanted. It was kind of a Cinderella story; he had the same hat size as the rest of us, so we said he could join the band. Together, Mark and Ed are the best rhythm section we've had by far."
"Ed's got a natural understanding of what we're doing," chimes in Horn. "He understands all kinds of styles like blues and rock, so he knows how to make our music swing."
Now that they have a tour bus instead of a van, the Derailers are starting to search for other musicians to help fill out their sound. At the top of the list is Austin pedal wizard Marty Muse, who won't be joining them on tour anytime soon, yet adds an inimitable Texas steel gray to their local appearances.
"You just can't be a decent steel player, either," Hofeldt says. "You're either not very good or you're great; there's no in-between. And if you've gotten to understand an instrument that's that difficult to play, you're a near-genius."
"And geniuses figure out that going out on the road isn't the best way to make a living," says Villanueva wryly. "Guitar players and drummers haven't figured that out yet."
"Marty is in the top one percent of all the musicians I've ever worked with," says Horn, speaking of just about everyone in either NYC or Nashville. "Every time we play with him, he plays something I've never heard him play before. If Marty is on the gig, you know it's gonna be a bad-ass gig."
The band speaks equally highly of other south Austin fixtures who helped bring Full Western Dress to the runway, including Elders on fiddle, Domino on piano, guitarist Casper Rawls, and engineer Stuart Sullivan. The band says they've never considered using folks outside of Austin -- well, except for Buck Owens, or Harlan Howard, or any other C&W legend who cares to offer their assistance.
It's Owens, no less, who's said he thinks the Derailers are one song away from being stars. Is that song on Full Western Dress? That remains to be seen, though it does seem pregnant with possibilities. They've already become staples on Country Music Television via two Reverb Deluxe videos. This time they made a short film for the lead single from Full Western Dress, "The Right Place," which is sure to garner more the band some added attention. Whether they're musicians with futures as actors is up to the critics. One thing is for sure, however: they're not acting about being musicians. What goes on under the nightclub lights is the real thing.
"We're playing better gigs," asserts Villanueva. "And playing better as a band. We feel good about the direction the whole thing is taking. We keep on going up."
The Derailers celebrate the release of Full Western Dress at La Zona Rosa, Saturday, October 2.