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This time, The Derailers are genuine

By Jon Johnson, March 2003

Through nine years, six albums, and numerous rhythm section changes, the two constants in Austin's The Derailers have been Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt, the group's guitarists, lead vocalists, and main songwriters.

Since 1994, the band has been one of the shining lights of the Austin music scene, recording and touring prolifically in support of a sound influenced by Bakersfield artists like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart as well as by the early '60s pop of The Beatles and Roy Orbison.

The Derailers are back again with their latest album, "Genuine," to be released in March on Sony's Lucky Dog subsidiary, and their second for the label.

"(Lucky Dog has been) really supportive," says Villanueva in a telephone interview. "They've been fans of the band since before we actually signed with them. They just want us to be us. We have the best of both worlds because Lucky Dog is somewhat like an indie label, but at the same time with the capabilities and the resources of a major label."

Both now 35, Villanueva and Hofeldt first met when they were about 21 and living in Portland, Ore.

"We were doing Tony's songs, (which were) already leaning toward our sound," says Hofeldt from his home in Austin. "We were into similar kinds of music, and we wanted to have a country band. There were some other guys in the band and their influences were not exactly what we wanted, so it wasn't exactly the band we wanted."

Asked about a persistent rumor over the years that he and Villanueva had been in a Ted Nugent cover band while still in Portland, Hofeldt laughs and says, "Well, we played 'Stranglehold' (in) another band we were in, just to make some bread. We still throw that in now and again. In 'Raspberry Beret,' (the Prince song they cover) you might hear a little 'Stranglehold' come in there."

Young, restless, and wanting to try living in an area where country music was more popular, Villanueva decided to move to Austin in the early '90s, with Hofeldt following a year later.

According to Hofeldt, "Tony came by and woke me up at 6 a.m. one morning and said, 'Man, I'm moving away. I just wanted to let you know, and I'll give you a shout when I get to where I'm going.' I'd seen him a week before, and I didn't know anything about it."

"So, he calls me up later on and says, 'Man, I'm in Austin, and this town is great! You've gotta come down, and check it out.' So I did. Took a week off from work, went down to check it out, and exactly a year later, I moved down and we got The Derailers going."

The band fit in perfectly in the heady Austin scene of the mid-'90s, a time when like-minded young turks such as Dale Watson and Wayne Hancock were also making waves.

The Derailers' first release was 1995's "Live Tracks," a collection of covers and originals (most of which were re-recorded for later albums) culled from a live performance on Austin's KUT.

The album opened the door both to more gigs and to a contract with local label Watermelon Records, which released the band's first studio album, "Jackpot," in 1996 and co-released 1997's "Reverb Deluxe" through a distribution deal with Sire Records.

Although the group eventually released two albums on Sire, 1999's "Full Western Dress" came out just as the label was purchased by London Records, who both Hofeldt and Villanueva say had little or no interest in country music.

Released from their Sire contract, the band quickly signed with Sony's Lucky Dog subsidiary (who had first courted the band while they were still signed to Watermelon), and hopes were initially high for the next album, "Here Come the Derailers."

Produced by Nashville studio ace Kyle Lehning, who took the reins from the group's longtime producer Dave Alvin (and who is best known for his work with the likes of Randy Travis and George Jones), the record contained some fine material - particularly the clever "Bar Exam," "There Goes the Bride" and an excellent cover of Arthur Alexander's "If It's Really Got to Be This Way" - and Lehning's radio-savvy production gave the band the best shot they'd had yet at commercial success.

Unfortunately, "Here Come the Derailers" also had the dubious distinction of being released on Sept. 11, 2001. As a result, its charms were overlooked by country radio stations that were shifting their playlists over to patriotic fare as quickly as possible.

Asked if he's worried about releasing yet another album at a time when the U.S. appears likely to be engaged in an international crisis - an increasingly likely war with Iraq - Villanueva seems not to have given the possibility much consideration.

"I really hadn't thought about it. I don't know why, especially considering when our last record came out."

For his part, Hofeldt also doesn't seem terribly concerned, having already experienced releasing albums that have been buried in label mergers and national emergencies.

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