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The Derailers ride the right track

By Brian Wahlert, September 1996

From Austin, Texas, the great musical city that spawned such critically acclaimed artis as Monte Warden's Wagoneers and Kelly Willis, comes a new group with a sound all its own, at least among modern country bands.

The Derailers do things its own way, expressing love for traditional country music everywhere from California to Norway.

Lead singer Tony Villanueva has just returned for an interview from his record label, Watermelon Records, where he's been ironing out some last-minute details on the late February album release. He sounds excited, and he has good reason to be.

Although still early in the year, it's a good bet that The Derailers' "Jackpot" will make many critics' top-10 lists for 1996.

Villanueva says, "We've arrived firmly with the old Texas-California honky-tonk sound."

In fact, the disc's 12 songs establish The Derailers as the direct descendants of the great Fifties and Sixties honky-tonk bands, especially Buck Owens & the Buckaroos. This is the kind of album that makes the listener yearn for the old days of country radio when everything was as honest and real as The Derailers sound now.

"Jackpot" is actually the group's second album. The band released a disc, "Live Tracks," on the small Texas-based Freedom Records label last year, almost accidentally as it turns out.

The group performed a live show on Austin public radio station KUT, and although Villanueva admitted, "we hoped to get a two- or three-song demo out of it to shop around to record labels," he had no idea it would be released as a full-length CD. "

It was a great thing for us to do, though," he says. "It gave us a good cause to hit the road."

And hit the road, they have, and the air, too, in fact.

Most of the group's dates are still in Austin at clubs like the Broken Spoke and the Continental Club, "which established our following and worked up a buzz," according to Villanueva. However, the band has also been well received in California and internationally.

After finishing a two-month run at Austin's Antone's in early March, they'll travel to Switzerland to play in a festival there.

Villanueva, whose deep voice and drawl make him sound like a cowboy, waxes a bit romantic when he talks about the group's European forays. Although The Derailers will only remain in Switzerland for three days, Villanueva hopes to "hit some museums" and enjoy "some of the natural beauty areas, the skiing areas" that he's heard about from friends.

Wouldn't it make more sense for The Derailers to establish an American following first, though, before trying to expand internationally?

Villanueva claims not. "Over there they're quicker to get hip to what's going on," he says. "There's a demand for us there," which was built up largely by an appearance in Norway last year at the Down on the Farm festival. Despite its corny name, the fair boasted hosting Billy Joe Shaver, Butch Hancock, Tish Hinojosa, and The Jayhawks. Maybe Europe does know something that America doesn't.

Who exactly are The Derailers anyway?

Villanueva is the group's lead singer on most songs and the rhythm guitarist. He and long-time friend Brian Hofeldt, who plays all of the guitar leads and sings back-up, form the core of the band. They grew up in Oregon, and despite different backgrounds, they both ended up playing music in their teens and found a kindred spirit in each other.

Villanueva grew up next door to his maternal grandparents, who "always had a radio or three tuned to the country station because that's all there was." He mentions such names as Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell and says, "I knew all those names, especially Johnny Cash and Hank Williams," and judging by his music, he speaks the truth. His Mexican-American father loved all types of music, though, and gave him a taste of everything from opera to jazz to blues. When Villanueva started playing in bands and writing songs, though, "they were country songs with gospel lyrics."

Hofeldt, on the other hand, describes his parents as "kind of hippies" and listened to Elvis Presley and the Beatles growing up. He developed a love for rockabilly, however, and ended up meeting Villanueva in a band called Dead Man's Hand.

Pretty soon they started their own band, even though Hofeldt was in another, more popular group at the time. Villanueva recalled, "He didn't make a lot of our gigs, but when he did, the level was just raised. I remember gettin' chills.... Singin' with Brian, something would just happen." Indeed, critics have compared Villanueva and Hofeldt's work, both in terms of the vocals and Hofeldt's guitar solos, to Buck Owens and Don Rich, the late leader of the Buckaroos.

After a while, Villanueva tired of the Portland scene, where "we were doin' a lot of cool rockabilly stuff, but it all had to be fast and loud." At 19, he decided to head south. After a short stay in Flagstaff, Arizona, he went to Austin, and Hofeldt later followed. They had their ups and downs together, sometimes playing six nights a week when they were lucky, "just me and him pluggin' in the acoustic guitars and singin'," sometimes getting paid, sometimes not.

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