The 'Rail Thing
Tony Villanueva, singer and guitarist for the Texas-based Derailers, sports a hairdo like no other. Buzzed close on top, left long and slick on the sides, it's the quintessential anti-pompadour, more Glenn Ford and Fuller Brush than Elvis Presley and pomade. "A 'Hollywood flat top' is what my barber Pete calls it down at Pete's Flat Top Shop in Austin," notes Villanueva from a pay phone outside an eatery in Minneapolis, one of the stops on the band's current tour. "A lot of people had it in the Fifties and early Sixties. It wasn't uncommon back then, but it's pretty hard to find now. For some reason or another, it never came back in style." When it's suggested that the coif is so incredibly uncool that it's ultra-cool, Villanueva breaks up. "That's the story of my life," he says with a chuckle. "At least the first half of it, anyway."
Three years after Villanueva and guitarist/fellow frontman Brian Hofeldt formed the Derailers (which includes bassist Ethan Shaw and Mark Horn, who recently replaced Terry Kirkendahl in the drum chair), a lengthening train of country hipsters has begun to understand this dichotomy. Among the fans who've embraced the act's brand of straight-up country and honky-tonk stylings is Buck Owens, one of the combo's musical heroes. According to Villanueva, the invitation to headline Owens's 71st birthday bash in Bakersfield, California, a few weeks ago was tremendously flattering.
"It was perfect," he enthuses. "For one thing, Buck's organization asked us to play our own music, and we were pretty much the only act that did a whole set, so that was pretty cool. And Buck was sitting right there in front of us, and he seemed to really enjoy us. But what was really neat was when Dwight Yoakam got up played his song 'Fast as You' with us." Yoakam, a longtime Owens booster and the designated torch-bearer for the neo-Bakersfield sound, had been itching to sing with the band for some time. "It made us feel real good that he felt comfortable enough to sit in with us in Bakersfield on such a big occasion," Villanueva allows. "That was a shot in the arm. And of course, the man of the hour, Buck Owens, was in prime form."
"It was certainly thrilling," adds Hofeldt, also lingering by the pay phone. "But it had a level of intimidation, too, because we were playing for the mentor. But we quickly relaxed and felt comfortable as soon as we saw Buck jumping and clapping." In his opinion, "It feels like our hard work is paying off, and we're starting to move into an area where the people we respect are showing some level of respect for us. It feels really good."
Jackpot, the Derailers' latest release on Watermelon Records, reveals many of the reasons behind the band's steadily growing popularity. Produced by roots-music stalwart Dave Alvin, a recent Westword profile subject ("A Blast From the Past," July 17), the disc features a dozen gems that embrace the Bakersfield approach while giving it a subtle kick in the seat. The tunes, most of which were written by Villanueva, include loping laments ("This Big City," "Lies, Lies, Lies"), roadhouse rollickers (the Hofeldt-penned "She Left Me Cold" and "I'm Your Man") and the amazing grace of "Vision to Dream On," a stately, pedal-steel-infused weeper about temptation among the already committed. The theme of this last ditty may sound schmaltzy, but the combination of the Derailers' instrumental restraint and Villanueva's direct, bittersweet lyrics make it far more gutsy and gripping than you might expect.
Of course, such rigorousness means that the Derailers' music may be too much for both pop-country lovers and those No Depression readers whose shallow C&W roots claim Gram Parsons as the mother vine. "It might be too much for me, too," Villanueva admits. "Those songs that come so close to the bone of the writer, at least seemingly--well, sometimes you put them out and you forget where they came from, but then someone says something about it and you remember, 'That's a good song. There's some blood in it from the past.'
"We hope the songs we're writing can penetrate people's emotions one way or another," he continues, "because they're songs from the heart--whether it's catharsis or it just makes them start smiling."
"The songs that we love impact us like that," Hofeldt elaborates. "And that's the tradition we try to write songs in, whether it's songs Harlan Howard wrote or Lennon and McCartney wrote. We've got a long way to go, but that's the goal we're shooting for."
Aiding the Derailers in this mission is their absolute sincerity. When it's suggested that the quartet's songs and live shows are marked by great earnestness, the compliment hits home with Hofeldt: "I'm glad to hear that, because we are very earnest. We are by no means a sendup or a Bakersfield Sha Na Na, or anything like that. We're dead serious."
To Villanueva, the word "earnest" calls to mind a different but equally positive connotation. "That harks back to the king of honky-tonk music, Ernest Tubb. I can't think of anyone who did it better. His songs were so good--straightforward, with great bands. Buck, George Jones--all those people had that good electric-guitar spark and that good, strong beat that Ernest Tubb started employing."
Modern-day preservationists such as Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Wayne Hancock and Dale Watson are helping the Derailers keep these musical verities alive. Hofeldt says that this de facto musical community "feels tight-knit, but it's also growing all the time. We've been overwhelmed and excited by it--by the leaps and bounds we've seen the scene take in the past two or three years that we've been doing this. More people want to get hip to it."
Why? "I think there's an ever-widening group of people who are dissatisfied with what they're being force-fed on the radio," he explains. "And they're looking for an alternative. We have people come up to us all the time and say, 'I never liked country music before, but I really dig what you guys do.' And we feel like we're playing pretty much hardcore honky-tonk most of the time. We have good pop hooks and a pop influence in there, but it's hardcore honky-tonk." He believes that "if people have a chance to hear it, they really enjoy it, and I think that's what's been happening."
Villanueva agrees. "In this 'alternative-country' movement that we're in, it seems like people are doubly enthusiastic about what we're all doing. For one thing, it seems a little bit like a secret, and for another, it's honest music. Brian says the fans want it to succeed so they can hear it on the radio, and that would be all right with me."
Thus far, this dream has come true only intermittently; although Jackpot has garnered airplay overseas, in Canada and on college-radio and Americana outlets in the States, it has been largely ignored by mainstream U.S. country broadcasters. The players hope that Reverb Deluxe, a new CD due out on Sire Records on November 18, does not suffer the same fate. But even if it does, the Derailers have no plans to jump the track. As Villanueva says, "We have fun on the road and we have fun playing--and it just keeps getting better. Sometimes we'll be coming in off two or three gigs with eight-hour drives each night, where you're pretty beat by Sunday and there might not be any people at a Sunday night show. But you have fifty or sixty people cheering and encouraging you, and it means so much.
"Timing has really been on our side," he points out. "And the thing is, we've never pushed it; we've never tried to force our way into anything. We've just worked hard and done all we could to get the best gigs and be as high-profile as we could. Basically, we would let opportunities come to us, and they would come when they were ready. And that's important. So things are working out pretty well for us. I've got my eyes wide open, and I'm enjoying the ride."
The Derailers. 8 p.m. Monday, October 6, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $6, 830-
Get the Music Newsletter