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It's not unusual for the term "next big thing" to enter into discussion of the Derailers, an Austin-based collective of sharp-dressed men with perhaps just the right croon and twang to bridge the gap between alternative country's rocker, radical and traditional camps. But at the moment, despite early words of encouragement from the likes of Rolling Stone, it appears lead Derailer Tony Villanueva himself isn't fully ready to believe the hype.
"What's really exciting is that I've recently come to the realization that I'm so far from writing the song that I know that I need to write," says Villanueva, the Derailers' primary singer and songwriter. "It's kind of cool that we keep getting closer, but the thing that keeps it vital is that we have so far to go. It would be terrible if it already felt like the end of the road."
Actually, it's been the road that's established Villanueva, guitarist Brian Hofeldt and bassist Vic Gerard as Austin's honky-tonk outfit to beat. During a period in which other country rockers such as Son Volt, Wilco and the Bottle Rockets gained national attention for their recorded breakthroughs, the Derailers focused on honing their sound -- a blend of roots, rockabilly and Buck Owens-influenced nostalgia -- live. In fact, even before the band signed to Austin indie Watermelon Records and released last year's critically acclaimed Jackpot, they had already toured most of the region and the West Coast on their own.
"Early on, we knew we'd have to tour extensively to get our message out, because for our kind of music, radio and retail is not all that it might could be yet," says Villanueva. "It's sort of an old-fashioned thing for us, where we need the traveling show and the snake medicine to show people what we're all about."
Given the band's extensive touring and the resulting word-of-mouth rumblings, it couldn't have been all that surprising that the bulk of the Derailers' buzz wound up coinciding with the release of Jackpot. Produced by seminal roots-rocker Dave Alvin, the release captured not only the band's live bounce but also a nice dose of the nervous charm of studio virgins. On Reverb Deluxe, the Alvin-produced follow-up due out later this month, the Derailers sound even more dangerous.
"I think it's more a progression than a departure," says Villanueva of Reverb Deluxe. "I definitely think it sounds more developed. Our identity is getting stronger, and closer to what we want the band to sound like ultimately."
The Derailers are at a point now where they're finally starting to sound like the Derailers, not simply disciples of Owens, Red Simpson and Merle Haggard. And while tracks such as "Dull Edge of the Blade" feature a bit of Roy Orbison-style texture, Reverb Deluxe also offers accordions, twist beats, surf nostalgia and the rollicking "California Angel" -- a ballsy rocker in the tradition of Jackpot's show-stealing "Desperate Ways." Could all this apparent growth just be a clever nod and a wink to the alternative tag they've been saddled with?
"If you're using alternative to describe something different, I think that's fine for us," Villanueva says. "But one thing I've always said is that we don't want to be a Bakersfield Sha-Na-Na. We never wanted to get an upright bass and spin it two times a song because of tradition. Every artist always has a predominant influence that you hear in their early stuff. [But] we've had so many other musical
influences from way back -- from the Sun guys to Tom Petty -- that I think by growing up so much later we're gonna be somewhat naturally different. It just takes some work getting there."
Clearly, part of that work, and a large part of what makes the Derailers so unique, is their knack for style -- from their suits and collared shirts to Villanueva's distinctive hairdo, which he calls (for lack of a better term) a "Hollywood Flattop with Fenders." Although the band hasn't been shy about offering hair gel tips in interviews, or in mailing promotional Jackpot plastic combs to journalists, Villanueva maintains that the band's sense of style is just an outgrowth of their work ethic, in that they take playing seriously enough to want to dress up for a gig just as a banker or stockbroker would dress up for his job.
"It's very much how we feel," Villanueva says. "But in terms of an image thing, people are going to know that we're the band and we're here to play. People will remember. We can get over it if people call us 'the suit band.' If that's all they remember, it's better than them not having any memory at all."
Chances are, though, that a majority of future Derailers memories will involve Reverb Deluxe and the year-long tour that's planned to promote it. Still, Villanueva anticipates that the next 12 months will be pretty much business as usual -- marathon road stints, the search for that elusive great song and, of course, new fans.
"Right now, the coolest thing is how often people come up to us and say, 'I don't like country music, and my friend dragged me here kicking and screaming. But I like you guys. You guys rock!' " he says. "I don't think it's so much that we rock, but that people don't know where country music came from. Those same people might have dug a George Jones show 30 years ago."
The Derailers perform at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 3, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $5. Sidewinders open. For info, call 869-
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