No matter what some delusional musicians might spew forth in their diatribes about "art" versus "commercialism," few bands would call for a ghostbuster if the specter of success actually paid them a visit. Selling a pittance of records to die-hard fans while gigging at endless clubs is not the apex of career goals for any working act, nor should it be. But stepping off the integrity precipice to that of commercialism does not come without the potential to stumble -- something that Austin's beloved roots country act the Derailers are just about to find out.
It's no coincidence that their fifth record has the howdy-nice-to-meetcha title Here Come the Derailers. Set for release on September 11, it's their debut for Sony Music Nashville's Lucky Dog imprint, with material specifically geared toward launching the group on contemporary country radio to a much wider audience.
"I sure am hopeful that this record is 'the one.' I think it's got the potential, but that's out of our hands," says singer/ guitarist Tony Villanueva while on vacation at his family's home south of Portland. "It was kind of a long process preparing material, and we were open to the idea of trying to get radio behind it but still staying true to our sound. I think the end result has even raised us up a notch or two we had a chance to make the record we wanted to make regardless." The "we" includes band members Brian Hofeldt (co-founder/ singer/guitarist), Ed Adkins (bass) and Mark Horn (drums).
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And though it may come as a bit of a surprise to longtime fans, particularly with the detwanging of Villanueva's voice and a more refined sound, Here Come the Derailers has successfully managed to blend the group's stone-cold Bakersfield-inspired country music sensibilities with a more modern sheen.
Standout tracks include the woe-is-me "Bar Exam" (which has nothing to do with the law, except perhaps breaking it), the jaunty "Your Guess Is Good as Mine," the achingly pretty "My Angel's Gettin' Tired," the danceable "There Goes the Bride" and a remake of Charlie Rich's "Mohair Sam" that's all shimmering grooves. The record's all-important first single is the Tex-Mex spiced "More of Your Love."
One particularly telling song is "All the Rage in Paris." (Texas, of course.) It's the semiautobiographical tale of a working band that plays to enthusiastic packed crowds inside the borders of the Lone Star State but is unknown beyond the Sabine and Red. "It's got that whole sentiment, but it's also just about having a good time at the Saturday-night dance," Villanueva says. However, he adds that the sentiment is not wholly accurate -- the Derailers also have found appreciative audiences as far away as Japan and Ireland.
The band credits producer Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, Waylon Jennings) with helping them find a common ground. "He had a big role, even before we started recording. He helped us look at material, and we got to know him," Villanueva says. Songs selected include those written wholly inside the band as well as some from collaborations and outside songwriters.
Villanueva says that the group is also excited about its new association with Lucky Dog, which they hope will put a halt to their nomadic existence. And it doesn't hurt that they'll enjoy the creative freedom of an independent label with the backing and publicity push of a conglomerate. Like Universal Music's new Lost Highway imprint (Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen), Lucky Dog (which also has Charlie Robison, Bruce Robison and BR5-49) hopes to mine the increasingly fertile fields of alt-country and Texas music to both its core audience and others increasingly tired of Nashville's bland brands.
"It seems like the best of both worlds. They understand who we are and the foundation that we've built with our music and our fans," Villanueva offers before laughing. "It's not mainstream, but they're certainly not reluctant for it to be. Hit records, I mean, that's what I grew up loving!"
Specifically, it's the Bakersfield country sound of Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins and especially Buck Owens (the band's hero, with whom they got to record) that Villanueva refers to. He and longtime friend Hofeldt moved from Oregon to Austin, forming the group in 1993. Their first record was the locally released Live Tracks in 1995, followed by Jackpot ('96), Reverb Deluxe ('97) and their best effort, Full Western Dress ('99). Members moved in and out, but Here Come the Derailers features for the first time the same lineup for two consecutive discs.
"The roots of country music are very important to us. I just think you can't go forward without knowing your history. Those early recordings stand up and are still vital today," Villanueva says. When asked to quantify the Bakersfield sound in words, he takes a second to think about it -- even though one suspects it's hardly the first time he's pondered the question. "Hmm I would say turn up the treble and keep the dance floor full! It's just beer joint-, dancehall-derived, with a little surf guitar and harmony we add in. It's hardworking music."
"It's not retro, it's reverence," Hofeldt said on the band's recent Austin City Limits TV appearance. And that's as apt a summary of Derailers music as any.
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Though their Houston dates mark the beginning of a very stuffed schedule as their upcoming tour winds its way through the country, Villanueva hopes to find some time to shop. Outside of Villanueva's slicked-on-the-sides, crewcut-on-the-top hairstyle, the band is best known visually for their natty western suits. "We all have sources for them, and we were lucky that Manuel, who studied under [legendary Nashville tailor] Nudie and does suits for Dwight [Yoakam], Marty [Stuart], and Alan Jackson does some for us as well."
He found a less expensive source for the outfit that he wears on the record cover, however. "We had a photo shoot, and I didn't have anything to wear. So I went to a vintage clothing store in Austin. I walked in, and the woman took one look at me and said, 'Western suit?' and I said, 'Yes!' "
Villanueva wraps up the conversation by saying that he's taking his family to a nearby fair to see Mark Chesnutt and a bull-riding event. When it's suggested that perhaps it would be great publicity for the band if he donned that vintage Austin suit and entered the competition, he says with a chuckle, "That's not the kind of publicity we want!"
Come to think of it, the headline "Derailed!: Slick-suited singer gored in ring" probably isn't the kind of notoriety they're looking for. But then again, there's nothing like a tearjerking near-death experience to grab radio's interest.