In 1995, David Goodman and Jane Vaughn got married in the fair city of Austin, Texas, and like all good Austinites, they held their reception at The Broken Spoke, a honky-tonk landmark. Providing the music was one of the finest honky-tonk bands around, the Derailers. As David remembers, “That night, they were their usual mischievous selves. Their pattern, especially at The Spoke, was to start out with two-steps, waltzes, and a few swingy numbers for the first part of the evening; then, when all the old, old regulars had gone, they got looped, cranked up the Fenders, and played (loud) old rock songs”. (You may recognize David Goodman as the author of Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Guide and Directory, the definitive guide to alt.country.)
The great thing about the Derailers’ most recent album, Here Come the Derailers, is that the band sounds as boisterous now as it did then, the mark of a first-rate honky-tonk band.
Besides, who wouldn’t want the Derailers playing at their wedding reception? Not only have they been one of alternative country’s hottest bands since the late 1990s, but they also look great. With their retro-western suits — some even by Manuel, tailor to country stars like Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam — cowboy boots, and slicked-back hair, there’s no better-dressed group in country. This is, after all, a band that included The Official Derailers Guide to Style pamphlet with their first album. Not only did The Guide share tips on looking good (e.g., the right kind of hair grease is essential), but it was also supplemented with a complimentary comb.
No doubt about it: these guys are sharp! And what’s more, their music is every bit as impressive as their look.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
Before the Derailers were keeping Austin’s dancefloors crowded, Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt were two musicians who met in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1980s and briefly collaborated as a songwriting/singing duo. In 1989, Villanueva headed to Austin to try his luck and convinced Hofeldt to make the move in 1993. During a recent phone interview en route to Alpine, Texas, Brian Hofeldt remembers the experience as akin to going to trade school: “When we moved down there, it was kind of like we entered into ITT Institute of Guitar Playing or something”. Add a jamming rhythm section, and the Derailers were born. They’ve seen some personnel changes, but since drummer Mark Horn joined in 1998 and bassist Ed Adkins enlisted in early 1999, the line-up has been set.
Villanueva and Hofeldt take turns at lead vocals and tight harmonies while Hofeldt plays a wicked lead guitar on his Telecaster, and Villanueva throws in the rhythm guitar, clearly under the influence of the Bakersfield’s Buck Owens and Don Rich: just listen to Villanueva’s Owens-influenced pronunciation, the backing vocals with Hofeldt catching the high harmony just as Rich did with Owens, and the driving Telecaster guitar all set to Adkins’ basslines and Horn’s drumming. But the Derailers’ music reflects a wide variety of influences, from country to rock to R&B.
All of this illustrates that the Derailers are a band that understands the importance of history, both in their name and their music. Villanueva and Hofeldt settled on “the Derailers” because their grandfathers were railroad men; the musicians believed it was important to ground themselves in their personal heritage as well as musical history. Cited as influences are Owens, Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, Ray Price, George Jones, and Lefty Frizzell, in addition to current performers like Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, and Brad Paisley. Clearly, the Derailers’ musical roots run deep.
Brian Hofeldt describes country music in terms that Hot Country would do well to appreciate: “Country music versus pop music is when you find out what love is really about versus what you thought it was about when you were a kid. Country is adult music, in a way — and I don’t mean ‘adult’ in a bookstore kind of way; I just mean it’s for people who know what love’s really about, the hard times that are involved in that and the good times, too, hopefully”.
Early on, the Derailers played, well, anywhere they could and built a strong following while performers like Junior Brown, Don Walser, and Dale Watson were rocking Austin’s alt.country scene. Although today the Derailers don’t have to play just anywhere, they’re not afraid of the road; they’ll play some 250 dates this year, a decrease from their past record of 320 dates in 1997, but still a healthy schedule. “That’s how we get the word out”, Hofeldt explains. “We have a great fan base of folks who are very excited and enthusiastic about us, and they look forward to seeing us come around again. So we feel it’s our obligation to get out there and play for the folks”. The Derailers know how to put on a show with choreographed stage moves, great jams, and witty repartee; they want people to have a good time. (On Halloween, the band’s alter-ego, The She-railers, made a brief appearance in Nashville, with Brianna, Toni, Edwina, and Martha wearing the most haute couture fashion while playing some wickedly good music.)
The Derailers haven’t been limited to playing smoky honky-tonks, either. They’ve had videos on Country Music Television and Great American Country with “The Right Place” selected CMT’s “Best Independent Video” in 2000. Moreover, the Derailers have appeared on a variety of television and radio programs and filmed a pilot for Cringe, a doomed alt.country program on MTV. They’ve even had a promotional deal with Doritos involving guitar picks hidden in a bag of chips (with the grand prize a platinum pick).
The Derailers’ first studio record, Jackpot (1996) was released on Watermelon records while the follow-ups, Reverb Deluxe (1997) and Full Western Dress (1999), appeared on Sire. (The hidden track on Reverb, a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”, is not to be missed.) Roots-rock legend Dave Alvin produced all three. Each album saw increasing success, but the Derailers were ready for more mainstream acceptance, especially on radio. According to Hofeldt, when the band decided to look toward Nashville, Alvin was supportive: “Actually, Dave had urged us in that direction…. He said, ‘You guys want a shot at country radio, you better get a Nashville producer. Those guys know how to make it sound like radio wants’. That was even before Full Western Dress, but we stuck with him on that. But this time we decided, ‘Yeah, we’ll try it out'”.
So the Derailers headed to Nashville for Here Come the Derailers, their first disc with the Sony-Nashville imprint Lucky Dog, to work with well known producer Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette). “It was a pleasure to work with him”. Hofeldt says. “He had a great ear, and I think he captured an aspect of our personality that was represented by our natural growth to that period”.
The basic tracks of the record were laid down in three days at Monument Studio — a “great experience”, says Hofeldt: “The studio we recorded at in Nashville was a place Roy Orbison had recorded and many other country music legends, so it had a good feel and a vibe we could relate to there”. Hofeldt explains their efficiency by saying, “I think it was indicative of the way the producer had a good vision about how he wanted to do it and how well everybody played together”.
For this record, the Derailers tried a different approach to song selection as well. In the past, they’d written most of the material but, for Here Come the Derailers, they followed advice given to them by a pair of experts. “That was something Buck Owens and Harlan Howard had both told us at different points — always be open to looking for a great song”, Hofeldt says. “Buck Owens said if he hadn’t been open-minded, he never would have found ‘Act Naturally’, which was his big breakthrough. So he said always keep your eyes peeled for that because once you get a hit, just start writing a bunch of songs just like it. [Laughs] We all cracked up, you know, but it’s true: the great songs are great songs”. For this record, they selected material written by Kostas, Jim Lauderdale, Dallas, Frazier, and others, in addition to Derailers-composed tunes. It’s a combination that works.
In terms of sound, the Derailers still sound like, well, the Derailers though long-time fans will notice the band’s a bit smoother on this outing. As Hofeldt puts it, “I think we’ve retained, generally, the path we were going for. But we’ve certainly grown as players and allowed our other influences to come in”. In many ways, Here Come the Derailers celebrates the great voices from the past (Owens, George Jones, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and Charlie Rich to name a few) while adding a contemporary twist that’s pure Derailers, illustrating how the sounds and themes of country music remain as relevant now as they were 40 years ago.
At the heart of Here Come the Derailers is the Saturday Night/Sunday Morning dichotomy, that tension between the flesh of the honky-tonk and the spirit of the church, that’s defined country music since its beginnings. Clearly, the Derailers are a Saturday night band right at home with “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud, music”, but they understand just how complex Saturday night is. Certainly, this music tells the stories of those who hit the honky-tonks for a good time, but it also acknowledges those driven there by desperation. These are people who find little consolation in Sunday morning’s congregation; rather, the community of the honky-tonk provides more-immediate answers. The Derailers’ songs reverberate with humor and heartbreak, and the music is never less than first rate, a reminder of one of the honky-tonk’s primary attractions.
Here Come the Derailers kicks off with “More of Your Love”, an infectious tune by Kostas and Wilson set to a ’50s Latin beat. “I don’t need much, just a little bit more of your love”, sings Villanueva, his enthusiasm reinforced by Hofeldt’s guitar and the pedal steel of Marty Muse. From there, the Derailers’ exploration of Saturday night gains momentum. The humorous “Bar Exam”, a two-beat, honky-tonk number, has Buck Owens all over it as Villanueva sings, “I’m taking the Bar Exam under a neon sign / I’m gonna graduate when you’re off my mind”. Of course, this school has “a helluva band”, notes the singer, who’s completed a Ph.D. in “Heartaches and Misery” and a B.S. in “Bar Stool Philosophy”. Now he’s taking the “Bar Exam” — in fact, the final’s right in front of him. It’s the kind of ironic, pun-filled tune country music is famous for, though the subtext — that heartbreak has driven the singer to pursue this form of “higher education” — is more serious.
The good times roll on throughout Here Come the Derailers. There’s the rockabilly influenced “Your Guess Is as Good as Mine” (a number the Derailers co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale), complete with Scotty Moore-like guitarwork, as well as a cover of Dallas Frazier’s “Mohair Sam”, a hit for Charlie Rich in 1965 and a great vehicle for the Derailers’ version of country-soul. Hofeldt takes the lead vocal in this salute to the “hipster happening all over our town” — “fast-talking, slow-walking, good-looking Mohair Sam”. Mark Horn’s sexy beat and Adkins’ bassline set Mohair Sam’s strut while the piano, guitar, and vocals provide much of his flare. When Mohair Sam enters the Derailers’ honky-tonk, folks — especially the chicks — sit up and take notice.
Perhaps the most joyous track on the album is the Derailers-composed instrumental “Country a Go-Go”. Grounded in The Ventures, “Country a Go-Go” has Mohair Sam’s chicks pulling on their go-go boots and dancing a retro-twist. The song also links the Derailers to a country tradition that has virtually disappeared. Hofeldt says, “To us, [the instrumental has] always been a part of the country sound…. “It just kind of shows off the band a little bit, maybe, and we can have some fun with it”. Both their skill and humor are readily apparent.
Not everything on Here Come the Derailers is so lively, though, and some of the album’s strongest tracks are those of heartbreak. For example, “You Know What She’s Like” is an account of a man’s powerlessness in the face of his lover’s depression, or “a lonely wind that blows in a place she sometimes goes” — it’s the kind of song George Jones would do. As Villanueva sings, “But neither wine nor roses can unlock the door that closes / And that’s when my heart is there to tell my mind / You know what she’s like when she gets the blues / Nothing I can say, nothing I can do”. The sounds of the guitar, fiddle, and pedal steel add to the feeling of frustration conveyed by the singer, even as the vocal harmonies are perfect and seemingly supportive; these elements that work so well together build a thematic sense of absolute powerlessness, of there being nothing the singer can do.
In a similar vein is “I See My Baby”, written and sung by Hofeldt with echoes of Roy Orbison. With its Latin beat and guitar, the song opens with absolute abjection: “Each day I wake and I’m alone / I wonder what did I do wrong / And every night I go to bed, thoughts of her that fill my head / I turn my face to the wall and hope that I fall into dreams of the love I once had”. The song veers between the singer’s memories of the past and fantasies of her return, an unsettling atmosphere reinforced by Hofeldt’s vocal combined with the almost other-worldly guitar and organ. “I See My Baby” ends with a terrifying ambiguity as the still singer pours a drink and cries again before confessing that he’s “stepped into the air”: “I feel my love closing tight, tears blur my eyes / And now as my world turns black / I see my baby coming back”. Whether the step is literal or metaphoric, the song stands as a haunting account of the desperation loss can create.
Longing drives songs like “I’d Follow You Anywhere” (by Lauderdale and Melba Montgomery); similarly, “My Angel’s Getting Tired” describes the complexities of love. The band’s cover of R&B legend Arthur Alexander’s “If It’s Really Got to Be This Way” is a statement of resolution, even though the exhaustion in Villanueva’s vocal undercuts that determination.
The centerpiece of Here Come the Derailers, however, is “All the Rage in Paris”. This Lauderdale-Burgess song tells the story of a band that was once the Toast of Paris — Texas, that is — and ruled Lonestar dancehalls. As Villanueva sings, “We were all the rage in Paris / From San Antonio to Dallas / And every honky-tonk and dancehall in between”. In fact, this band was a contemporary of Bob Wills, “a hero to us all” for his musicianship and work ethic. The song’s musical mood is compelling, both joking and nostalgic, reliving the past in a present that has little time for dreams. The pedal steel, fiddle, and piano add to the sense of memory, and there is as much irony here as in “Bar Exam”, though the tone is radically different. At the song’s end, Villanueva sings, “Melodies remembered linger on”, commenting on the power of music — in fact, the singer is moved to wipe the dust off his steel, as he says he does on occasion, and “I play just to recall how it used to feel”. After the last chorus, the song suddenly evolves into a dancehall Texas two-step with lots of fiddle and guitar as a ghostly twang of pedal steel flits through the music, a reminder that this is a vision of the past. A masterful song in its own right, “All the Rage in Paris” takes on more meaning as the Derailers try to take their music beyond Texas while bringing with them their “Paris, Texas” honky-tonk history.
But the party has to end.
Like any good honky-tonk band, the Derailers finish their set with an upbeat tune, in this case “There Goes the Bride”. When a song opens with “The Wedding March” picked out on a Telecaster, it surely foreshadows the fact that the nuptials are doomed — which is exactly the story this song tells. To a country shuffle, Villanueva sings of being jilted, “There goes the bride, you can kiss that girl good-bye / I guess she really takes the cake this time / . . . / Here comes my heartache, and there goes the bride”. But the music is with him, as is Delbert McClinton’s bluesy harmonica. The singer’s heart may be broken, but the music makes clear where he plans to go for his recovery — and that he’ll be just fine.
And that’s good news for fans of the Derailers. After all, a happy marriage would move these guys from Saturday Night to Sunday Morning. But with the bride running from the altar, well, that means the Derailers are back in the honky-tonk, right where they belong.