Unless you worked for a manufacturer of face masks, hand sanitizers, or sweat pants, chances are the pandemic was not particularly good for your industry. That especially goes for most working, non-superstar bands, the majority of whom make their money on touring and merch.
Fortunately for the Derailers, a business decision made a quarter century ago helped the current lineup live when they couldn’t play.
“The bottom just dropped out, it was a big one, just financially devastating,” says Derailers singer/guitarist and co-founder Brian Hofeldt via Zoom. “But back when we were young, we decided to incorporate as a business so we could buy houses and be up on taxes. And because of that, we were able to apply for the unemployment that we’d been paying into for 25 years. That was a surprise extra plus for having done the right thing.”
Today, the Derailers stay mostly close to their Austin home with monthly gigs at the city’s legendary honky tonk (and recent recipient of a State of Texas Historical Marker) The Broken Spoke, and weekly show at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul for Chicken Shit Bingo Sundays (Google it). But they’ll venture to Houston for a free show at the recently re-opened Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar this Friday.
The Derailers were founded in 1993 around the nucleus of singer/guitarists Hofeldt and Tony Villaneuva. Two years later, they made a splash at SXSW on the heels of debut Live Tracks. A Derailers song was played back to Earth from the first iPod taken into outer space by astronaut Dr. Stephen K. Robinson. And they also appear as characters in two Stephen King stories.
Today, their music would be filed under Americana or Ameripolitan. For some, it’s a code-word genre for “true” Old School country and roots music, words away from today’s Lady A, Jelly Roll, or Bro Country.
“Roots music and roots country has always had its place with bar bands. And we were in Rolling Stone when there was stuff going on with us and Dale [Watson], Junior Brown, Wayne Hancock and BR5-49. Something was happening,” Hofeldt says. “But it got rolling and morphed into this Swing Revolution around 2000. Dance music for people who dressed up in these big zoot suits.”
Though he does give credit to the recently-deceased legendary record company mogul Seymour Stein. He signed the Derailers to his Sire label (also at one point home to Madonna, the Ramones and Talking Heads) for a few releases.
“He was a cool, real old school record man who came out and saw us a couple of times. He understood what we were doing, and that it was not a Nashville thing,” Hofeldt notes. “He used to work for King Records back in the day and had this experience with country music and the hillbilly acts they had before they got James Brown.”
Both Tony and Brian sang lead—Villanueva’s deep, twangy voice handling most of the stone country material, and Hofeldt tackling more of the brighter, pop and British Invasion leaning tunes on records like Jackpot, Reverb Deluxe, Full Western Dress (which yielded the hit “The Right Place”), Here Come the Derailers, and Genuine—though constant label-hopping likely slowed some of their career momentum with the continual resets.
“Bob, you hit the nail on the head there! If you talk to Tony before he left, there was that frustration. In 2003 after Genuine, we were excited about it and bent over backward to give Nashville something. Even that cheesy Elvis rap that DJs could play as something funny for the morning shows [“I Love Me Some Elvis”],” Hofeldt says.
“It was not fun for us to live in a world designed like that. And there was something like 23 extra musicians on that record with outside material. We weren’t in control of our own [career] anymore.”
A change in record company presidents also meant the focus was now on “the next record” under the possible production aegis of T Bone Burnett. It was as if the Derailers had already been given up on as a self-contained unit.
Villanueva decided he was tired of the music biz runaround and wanted to spend more time with his family while pursuing his strong religious faith as a pastor and left the group. With Hofeldt now leading, Soldiers of Love leaned even more into British Invasion/Beach Boys sounds. Though their next effort, a tribute to Buck Owens, swung back. Years earlier, the band played Owens’ own 70th birthday party. A photo of him gazing admirably at the group graces its back cover. The Derailers’ last studio release was 2008’s Guaranteed to Satisfy.
Hofeldt says he’s still in touch with Villanueva, mostly talking on holidays or birthdays, and last December had lunch with him at Austin’s Stubbs BBQ together with their wives. But the separation from his fellow co-founder still stings a bit even two decades later, and he's almost wistful about it.
“It was a devastating loss for me for a long time. Three years later, we finally got Soldiers of Love out. And it took hooking up with [Soldiers producer/musician] Buzz Cason to help me. I needed a partner,” he says. He still holds out hope that he and Villanueva could make live music again, even if as just a duo.
In fact, the Derailers story almost parallels that of fellow country/roots band the Jayhawks, with Villanueva in the role of Mark Olson and Hofeldt as Gary Louris in terms of tenure and musical interests. Hofeldt—who has even hung out a bit with Louris—is pleasantly surprised by the comparison.
“I love that band! And when I saw them in a video playing a Buck Owens red, white and blue guitar, I knew they were gonna be good!” he says. “I couldn’t pigeonhole what they were, blending that country and pop sound. That’s what Tony and I tried to do. We’d say, ‘He’s a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock and roll!’” [playing on the familiar tagline for Donny & Marie Osmond on their ‘70s TV show.]
As for the future, Hofeldt says he hopes the band gets back to Houston more often. They also have four pre-pandemic tunes already recorded and are looking at releasing a single.
Though he says people “expect to get their music—like their journalism—for free these days.” He not-so-jokingly says a big revenue stream these days for bands is probably Muzak. Or, as he says, “What you hear playing when you’re shopping at H.E.B.”
Finally, when asked about particular memories of Houston, Hofeldt puts his hand to his chin and says “There are so many.” He recalls gigs at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, the Mucky Duck, and that the Houston Continental Club had opened with local muso David Beebe “in about 10 bands” along with [Club co-owner] “Piano Pete” Gordon. But it was one very un-country music instance that sticks out.
“My wife had grown up in Houston and we went there specifically to see [Dead Kennedys’ punk legend] Jello Biafra play the Continental Club. We were excited and it was going to be fun. Though Pete said there was no glass bottles or drink glasses allowed because Jello said not to have them,” Hofeldt recalls.
“We started laughing and said ‘What? This isn’t 1984. You think there’s going to be slam dancers?’ And sure as shit an hour into the show, a naked girl came flying off the stage and this big mosh pit had been going on for a bit and we said ‘Well, I guess Jello knew what he was talking about!’”
The Derailers play 8:45 pm on Friday, April 21, at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar, 1031 E. 24th. For more information, call 832-499-5235 or visit DanElectrosBar.com. The Broken Spokes open. Free.
For more on the Derailers, visit Derailers.com