Country rock group
Through a seemingly endless array of lineup changes, the two constant members of the Derailers have been group founders Tony Villaneuva and Brian Hofeldt, who met in Portland, Oregon, and resumed their partnership in Austin, Texas, in 1993. From the beginning, the Derailers modeled their music on the cohesive and consistent sound of such country-and-western bands as Merle Haggard’s the Strangers, Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, and Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadors. Like those groups, the Derailers write, rehearse, record, and tour as a unit—as opposed to using different musicians for each tour and recording—often drawing favorable comparisons to them.
Alternately dubbing their music “Americana” and “heavy country,” the Derailers perform in classic 1950s era Nudie-style vintage western hipster suits, singing both covers of and songs modeled after the golden age of country music: 1950-65. During this era, predominantly male performers like Tubb, Haggard, and Owens as well as Faron Young, Hank Thompson, George Jones, Marty Robins and Lefty Frizell, noted for their smooth, high-quality crooning, performed a style known as honky tonk, whose twin themes are lost love and hard drinking. Richard Skanse of Rolling-Stone.com said about a 1998 performance at New York’s Tramps club: “[The Derailers] stay almost unerringly true to the well-worn, lovin’, leavin’, cheatin’, and hurtin’ track of classic country.” The Derailers’ adherence to the golden age traditions has drawn many critics to compare them to contemporary bands such as the Mavericks and BR-549. Unlike those bands, however, the Derailers also derive ample inspiration from latter-day rockabilly and punk-rock performed by the Blasters and X. What the Derailers do so well, according to Skanse, is “honky tonk, Bakersfield sound, western swing and rockabilly, specifically…. [They] play like grand-an-hour Nashville session pros and charm audiences like Vegas veterans.”
A friend in Portland, Oregon, who thought the two would make a good songwriting team introduced Hofeldt and Villaneuva, who had grown up in Oregon together. The pair played Johnny Cash and Rolling Stones covers as the Barnburners over the next two years, just a handful of times, once opening for Seattle grunge band Nirvana. Even though they played only sporadically together, they realized that they had formed a bond that would stick. Villaneuva already had plans to leave for Austin, Texas, however—home to several seminal country and country-rock acts such as the Bad Livers, Chaparral, and the Millionaire Playboys—in 1989, at the age of 19; Hofeldt eventually joined him in 1993. The pair set about forming the Derailers, taking the band’s name from their desire to “derail” country music from its tracks. Both men had grandfathers who had worked on railroads, and, as the Austin Chronicle’s Louisa C. Brinsmade wrote, “It was the sweeping grace and rawness of American spirit that trains stood for in their hey-day that both musicians wanted to capture in their music.” They recruited bassist Vic Gerrard from the disbanded Austin bands Chaparral and Two Hoots and a Holler, and went through several drummers before Terry Kirkendall, who had left Dale Watson’s band, signed on.
The Derailers released their first album, Live Tracks, on Freedom Records in 1995. Recorded live in the radio studios of KUT, it featured additional instrumentation by Howard Kalish on fiddle and Scott Walls on pedal steel guitar. Many of the songs on that limited release were noticeably altered on Jackpot, their major label debut for Watermelon Records, produced by former Blasters and X guitarist, songwriter, and singer Dave Alvin. The album drew numerous critical comparisons to 1960s recordings by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and also featured such rockabilly-influenced songs as “She Left Me Cold.” The album also showcases Villaneuva and Hofeldt’s distinctive vocal harmonies, one of their primary strengths, which have been compared to the Everly Brothers and the Delmore Brothers.
Unfortunately, Watermelon Records was unable to promote and distribute Jackpot effectively outside of Texas, and the album received little national attention. The company’s partnership with Sire Records, however, sealed just prior to the Derailers’ 1997 studio album, Reverb Deluxe, brought the group wider notice. The album, once again produced by Alvin, marked the debuts of new bass player Ethan Shaw and drummer Mark Horn. It featured three cover songs, including Harlan Howard’s “I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love (Today)” and a rockabilly, garage-band, and psychedelic version of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” and eight
Members include Ed Adkins (born on May 31, 1967), bass; Vic Gerrard (group member, 1993-96), bass; Brian Hofeldt, lead guitar, vocals; Mark Horn, drums; Terry Kirkendall (left group), drums; Lisa Pankrantz (left group), drums; Ethan Shaw (left group, 1997), electric bass, upright bass, piano; Tony Villaneuva, rhythm guitars, songwriting, harmonica, lead vocals.
Group formed in Austin, TX, 1993; released live album Live Tracks, 1995; released major-label debut and Dave Alvin-produced Jackpot, 1996; released Reverb Deluxe, 1997; released Full Western Dress, 1999; released debut on Lucky Dog/Sony Music label, Here Come the Derailers, 2001.
songs written by Hofeldt and Villaneuva, including one that drew comparisons to Ricky Nelson’s “Pawnshop Wedding Rings.”
When pressed by Raoul Hernandez of the Austin Chronicle to define their sound during this period, Villanueva responded: “What’s funny now is that country music of today is drawing from rock music of the seventies, which was drawing from hardcore country music.” After one last album for Watermelon/Sire, Full Western Dress, the group released its 2001 debut on Sony/Lucky Dog called Here Come the Derailers. Recorded in Nashville and produced by Kyle Lehning, the band featured yet another lineup change: a rhythm section with Ed Adkins on bass and Mark Horn on drums. The album includes a cover of the Charlie Rich rockabilly standard “Mohair Sam,” written by Dallas Frazier, and several songs either written with or by Texas songwriter Jim Lauderdale, including “Your Guess Is as Good as Mine,” “I’d Follow You Anywhere,” and “All the Rage in Paris.” Perhaps more notable, however, is the inclusion of Nashville session players and backup vocalists, including Marty Muse on pedal steel guitar, Delbert McClinton on harmonica, and Bekka Bramlett on vocals. Additional instrumentation on the album not used on previous recordings includes mandolins, and Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer, and Vox Continental keyboards. The four core members of the band also collaborated on the instrumental rave-up, “Country a Go-Go,” and the wedding song “There Goes the Bride.”
While the Derailers have been packing halls and enticing people to get up and dance and stamp their feet ever since their inception, they are becoming the band that “you can’t get in to see anymore,” according to Louisa C. Brinsmade of the Austin Chronicle. They are Americana, blues-influenced, alt-country; more than once, they have been called the future of country music. While they reflect on the old heyday of true country, they are creating and singing the stuff of tomorrow’s country. In the words of Christopher Grey of the Austin Chronicle, “[It’s] fine… for jukeboxes and dance floors everywhere, and whether it’s called country, pop, or rock & roll—or all of the above—that’s not going to change one bit.”
Live Tracks, Freedom, 1995.
Jackpot, Sire/Watermelon, 1996.
Reverb Deluxe, Sire/Watermelon, 1997.
Full Western Dress, Sire/Watermelon, 1999.
Here Come the Derailers, Lucky Dog/Sony, 2001.
Mansfield, Brian, and Gary Graff, editors, MusicHound Country: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1997.
Wolff, Kurt, editor, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 2000.
Austin Chronicle, March 1-7, 1996; November 17, 1997.
“The Derailers,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll (February 13, 2002).
“The Derailers: Tramps, New York, April 23, 1998,” RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/newsarticle.asp?nid=4148&cf=2691 (February 20, 2002).
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