Rural Oregon, off Highway 99: With all due respect and apologies to pater and mater Villanueva, one wonders if Buck Owens ever had a milk route that would have taken him through these parts ’round about the Summer of Love. Tony Villanueva grew up on a farm here, and half a track into the latest Derailers release, Reverb Deluxe, you suspect his heart pumps Buckaroo blood. When longtime Villanueva friend and partner Brian Hofeldt chimes in with ghost-of-Don-Rich licks and harmonies, the Buck-and-Don-as-Oregonian-milkmen theory is further fueled. It’s a comparison Villanueva and Hofeldt both welcome and resist.
“I think to say that Buck Owens is not an influence on our music would be folly,” says Hofeldt. “It’s obviously true. But try as we may, we will always fall short of sounding like the Buckaroos, because that was a great band, those were individuals that did what they did at that time period based on their abilities and their influences as they grew up. Tony and I are both 29 — we’ve grown up listening to a lot of different kinds of music and you can’t help but have those kind of things seep in.”
“It’s not just Buck Owens, obviously,” says Villanueva. “I’m flattered when people think that, but both Brian and I have a list longer than both our arms put together of people that have made a profound influence musically on our lives. I think Buck and Don is a very obvious parallel to draw, but I gotta be honest — those guys were singin’ machines! I think that we work with our own weaknesses and our own strengths and do things a lot differently than they did.”
The statement is borne out by the stylistic diversity of Reverb Deluxe. There are many familiar sounds, but they extend far beyond Bakersfield, and emulation never lapses into facile imitation. “We have a real respect, a real honest respect, for the roots of honky-tonk music,” says Hofeldt, “and I just feel it’s important to not make light of it and not slur the music. We’re trying to get a good reproduction of that kind of sound, but with our own soul comin’ through it.”
That soul does not preclude a hook. “Brian and I have really been unashamed of our pop sensibilities,” says Villanueva, adding in mock rue, “but then you’re dealin’ with goin’ through adolescence in the ’80s…” He recovers his composure. “Hey, there’s something to be learned even from some of the things that are borderline hideous. If there’s a catchy melody, by god, I’m for it in a lot of ways. I don’t think there was any kind of pretension of high art around the Derailers’ Jackpot record!” He laughs. “But I think that record definitely showed that we had some style of our own.”
Music journalism is a funny business. Writers try to describe music with words, and attempt to act as surrogate arbiters of what is and what ain’t. It’s a tricky, sometimes downright silly undertaking, and when it comes to music “movements,” the musicians often find themselves the in absentia focus of cranky debate. The alternative country movement has proven no exception, and I ask Villanueva how one avoids being sucked into the “is they/ain’t they” vortex. He thinks a minute, then chuckles, “We normally just sidestep those questions!”
“I don’t know,” he continues. “Everybody’s got to have a title for something. There’s the Americana charts…I remember last year we’d come to town and they’d say ‘Americana band!’ Most people, I think, are gonna go, ‘What the hell’s Americana?’ It’s all labels for people in the industry for the most part, I would imagine. I don’t think as of yet you’ll see too many record stores with an alternative country area; maybe that’ll come.”
The Derailers, who live in Austin, have gone to Nashville on “business” recently, and Villanueva is aware that such transgressions can sully one’s alterna-cred. But he is unwilling to tee off on the Top 40. “I bear no malice toward the whole Nashville thing. To me, it’s like a whole different world, but I don’t see any point in expending any energy or saying too much negative about the hat acts and what have you. I don’t really dig it, I couldn’t imagine listening to it, but why bark about it.”
I ask Hofeldt the “vortex” question. He is equally bemused. “From a band perspective we don’t feel alternative at all. We feel like we’re playing country music in the way we feel country music. I think ‘alternative’ is kind of interesting, but I don’t know if it’s an entirely correct moniker. For instance, my dad called me the other day and said, ‘I read People magazine’s interview about BR5-49, and based on the description, they sound exactly like you guys.’ But I feel like we’re a very different sounding band. Perhaps the same could be said about Dale Watson, or Wayne Hancock, maybe even some of the more alternative bands like Son Volt or something.” He trails off to silence for a moment, then wonders, “Did I answer your question there?”
It’s not that labels are completely useless. “In a way, the first time alternative country kinda came in handy, we were in some airport in Europe on some shuttle bus,” says Villanueva. “There were these people, and we could see that they worked for this MTV show. I don’t know what it’s called, but Terry our drummer knew what it was. We talked to them briefly. They were from New York City, and they said, ‘What kind of music do you guys play?’ I said, well, we’re a honky-tonk country band. And I saw their faces drop a little bit. But then I said, ‘But they call it alternative country…whatever that means.’ And she said, ‘Oh…okay. That means you’re different.’ ”
Those MTV folks, they dig different.
Like many country acts outside the popular U.S. mainstream, the Derailers have found an eager audience in Europe, and Villanueva muses on the topic. “Europeans seem to — I’m not puttin’ our country down by any means — but it seems a lot of times they’re a little bit ahead of what people here pick up on, and it seems like it’s always been that way. Like the blues movement: They’re definitely way ahead of America on reviving blues people’s careers. I don’t know, maybe the distance helps people see things more clearly.…I think sometimes people in the States lose track of what they have. And I think that people in the States in general don’t have as much of a sense of history. I just saw the documentary When We Were Kings, with Muhammad Ali, and Spike Lee made an astute observation about kids and people in general these days. He said you could ask them about something that happened just last year and they don’t know. There’s just no sense of history…even modern history. There’s definitely more of that in Europe.”
Norway has been especially fertile ground for the band. “They love the Bakersfield sound,” says Villanueva. “It seems to be pretty infectious wherever we go, here or abroad, but in Norway it seems like Buck had a special place in their Norwegian hearts. I heard from some older folks there that Buck actually recorded some stuff there in Norway…pretty much the same stuff, but Norwegian versions…not in language, but he spent a pretty good bit of time over there, so he wound up with a pretty good following…more so than maybe other country artists at the time. The first time we went to Norway we sold a lot of Derailers records, but I think we also sold a lot of Buck Owens records! We’d do one or two Buck Owens numbers for ‘em a night, and they loved it, and I feel really good about that, because I think it’s really crucial to point back to where it comes from no matter what your genre.”
And what do the Derailers see when they point forward? “It’s so great to have what feels to me like a small brotherhood of people out there doing this kind of music, and I can’t say enough good things about the other artists out there,” says Hofeldt. “I’m real excited about this, and I hope we all stick together, because something’s going to happen. By that I mean I feel like there are people that don’t know they would like this kind of music, but given the opportunity, would love it. There’s nothing like washing the week away with music, and dancing, and pure joy, and goin’ out to a club and drinkin’ beer, meetin’ a beautiful girl and dancing with her — that is what the music’s all about. So if we’re makin’ records and we’re successful, that’s great. If not, we’re still gonna be playin’ ‘Heartaches by the Number’ every weekend, or ‘Crazy Arms’. That’s what we enjoy doin’.”
Michael Perry writes from a town of 486 people in northern Wisconsin, where he is the first volunteer fireman in village history to miss the monthly meeting because of a poetry reading.