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The Derailers stay on track

By Jeffrey B. Remz, May 1998

With one foot firmly planted in Texas honky tonks and the other in the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens, The Derailers chug along.

Their major label debut, "Reverb Deluxe" on Sire doesn't make a lot of changes to the band's basic love of Bakersfield and the Lone Star state with a dose of Sixties styled pop harmonies.

Lead singer Tony Villanueva says from a pit stop in New Mexico, "We wanted to have some improvement in our songwriting and improvement in our sound, and I think that naturally happens through time."

"There has been (improvement), but we didn't move too far away from what our general path has been and still is."

If you're getting the sense that these guys - Villanueva along with co-leader guitarist and occasional lead vocalist Brian Hofeldt, bassist Ethan Shaw and drummer Terry Kirkendall - keep good company when it comes to country, you're right. No sticking their fingers in the air to check the latest musical currents.

Hofeldt and Villanueva, both 30, shared a long love of country dating back to their Portland, Ore. days where both grew up.

Hofeldt says, the honky tonk/Bakersfield sound was "the culmination of everything we grew up with, which was a diverse scene as hell. We grew up in which everything was available from the past...There were lot of different styles and influences. We heard country. We listened to country. We heard rock and roll."

A roots revival about 15 years ago also influenced Hofeldt and company.

The Bakersfield sound was part of the mix. "It's just something that's hard not to like," Villanueva says. "If you're a fan of music in general and country music specifically, it's such an infectious sound."

Buck Owens, who they've played with at his Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield, was one part of the mix. "There are a lot of other guys who are great to listen to," he says. "There's a great spark going on those Merle Haggard records. The players had a lot of cool things. It was really inventive."

"It's real stripped down. That's the appeal," Villanueva says.

Villanueva and Hofeldt both left Portland for Austin about five years ago with the intention of playing music.

The group's first disc was unusual, a live album done as a radio show which they didn't expect would turn into an album. Three songs from the Freedom Records CD ended up on "Reverb Deluxe."

"At that point, we never had any other options to release anything," says Hofeldt of "Live Tracks," released on the small Freedom label in Austin.

"No one said they wanted to release us. We were out working our asses off with no record, touring around, and it gave us an opportunity to sell something on stage. People kept asking us, we'd love to have something to take home.' It was a homegrown little operation, and it ended taking off real well."

The band later switched to Watermelon, another Austin label, for their follow-up, "Jackpot."

The release of "Reverb" was delayed for months while Watermelon worked out a deal with Sire.

Although the band talked with other labels, Hofeldt says, "Clearly, Sire had the best ideas and the best mindset in tackling the difficulties of this alternative country or whatever it may be called. They were excited."

Label founder Seymour Stein "was hepped up on the band. He was excited," says Hofeldt.

He was not worried about falling victim to the commercialism of country.

"The way that our band is, there would be no way we could be warped that badly," Hofeldt says. "We just don't have the potential to be that bad. Certainly, looking at the past history of Sire and the acts he had, Talking Heads, The Replacements. They were on major labels, but they were able to do what they wanted to do."

"I supposed it could have been frightening if we went with some other label that didn't get it," says Hofeldt, who along with Villanueva penned 12 of 15 songs with one cover being Harlan Howard's "I Don't Believe I'll Fall In Love (Today)."

The one odd-ball track on the Dave Alvin-produced disc is the hidden closer, "Raspberry Beret," courtesy of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince." The Derailers actually may be onto something as LeAnn Rimes closes her new, mainly non-country disc with "Purple Rain."

"We had this opportunity do a tribute show in Austin with a bunch of different artists doing Prince songs," Villanueva says. "We got hep to the idea. It's the idea of doing something outside of our musical world, what seemed to be, just do it our own way. It was a lot of fun. That one really translated song into a Derailers song. "

"I don't think it's tongue-in-cheek," Villanueva says.

Villanueva acknowledged "a little bit" of a concern about including the song. Sire wanted to put the song on the label.

"The record was done, and we were doing it (live) before it was released. We were throwing it out there. We kept getting requests more and more. The label was hearing about it too - we were doing it and getting this great reaction."

The same can be said about the rest of their show.

"There's a groove happening," says Villanueva. "Honky tonk to me has elements of a lot of American music mixed in there. A lot of it is making people jump, making people dance and having a good time."