Country band two-steps toward big time

The first time you hear the Derailers, you might think you've wandered into the honky-tonk that time forgot. Actually, lots of Texas dance halls feel like that, and the Derailers have played them all.

But there's something about the timeless sound of this Austin-based country band that makes them one of the hottest groups on the small-town circuit.

The group's latest release on Sire Records, "Full Western Dress," continues the classic down-home sound they have honed over the years - combining two-part harmonies, Bakersfield-style guitars, and quirky love songs. It's the sound of that seminal moment when country music and rock 'n' roll collided.

For their part, Tony Villanueva and Derailers cofounder Brian Hofeldt don't spend much time analyzing why folks like their music. Tony thinks the band's third album just might break them through to a bigger, broader audience.

"For a while there, musicians were more into being somber and groveling," says Mr. Villanueva, speaking from a cell phone on the road to a club date in the barren west Texas town of Childress. "But our kind of music is more about having a good time and dancing. When you look out on the dance floor, you've got people doing the two-step, the jitterbug, and there's some people doing the hippie shake, too."

Like their 1997 release, "Reverb Deluxe," "Full Western Dress" mostly concerns itself with the travails of love. It's the Chisholm Trail of well-beaten paths, but Villanueva and Mr. Hofeldt bring a tightly crafted sound and offbeat lyrics that make it new again.

Consider the Buddy Holly-inspired rocker "Then She Kissed Me."

Teenage devotion hasn't sounded this sweet since the days of poodle skirts, and many parents must have thought such innocence to be extinct.

Also making an appearance in "The Right Place" is that most endangered of species, the happy, humble working man. In it, our hero courts his sweetheart not with wealth or travel, but with this line: "If a simple life to you is no disgrace/ honey, you've come to the right place."

Of course, since this is country music, it's not all sweetness and light. In one of the album's likely hit songs, "Hold on Fool Heart," the boys beg, "Don't let her bring us in/ don't let her win again."

And in the ultimate good-riddance anthem, "Someone Else's Problem," they quip, "All my friends say she's looking fine/ since she's been gone I feel the same."

Anyone who doubts the Derailers' curious drawing power should consider the sold-out crowd at Austin's Broken Spoke dance hall on a recent Saturday night. The dance floor is packed. Hippie couples with long braids dance alongside boot-scooting traditional types.

Villanueva still isn't sure what attracts the non-country fans (although he sounds dubious that there is such a creature). Maybe it's their snappy sharkskin suits and Opryland neckties. Or maybe it's their countrified version of Prince's "Raspberry Beret."

"More and more people turn up at our shows and they tell us, 'I didn't want to see a country band, but I sure do like you,' " says Villanueva, with a laugh. "I don't know what that means, but I'm glad they came."

For his part, Villanueva says he just plays the music he feels. "It's our music and it flows through the land. It's honest and it feels right."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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