The Derailers story posts in Americana Rhythm Music magazine Nov. 3

3 Nov

DerailersbestbandphotoOne of the original and founding members of the Derailers, Brian Hofeldt, calls the Broken Spoke the band’s “natural habitat,” while “living and working as door-to-door honky tonk salesmen.”

Twenty years ago, the band influenced by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, found a home at least once a month on stage at the Broken Spoke, a refuge from their peak of touring 320 days a year. Hofeldt later co-wrote a song about it, entitled “Cold Beer, Hot Women and Cold Country Music.”

Hofeldt together with guitarist and lead singer Tony Villanueva, formed the band that has since produced 10 albums on two different major record labels, as well as four independent labels and beat the all-time attendance records at the Broken Spoke over its 50-year history.

Villanueva left in 2003 to pursue other interests and since then, Hofeldt has fronted the band.

The Derailers began working at the Broken Spoke in 1995, after leaving a substantial gig where they played every Wednesday at The Continental Club in Austin.

“We had these ‘Train Wreck Wednesdays’ we called them when we did them at the Continental Club and we were packing that room out to such an extent that we needed to come over here to The Spoke. We had a good thing goin’ so we asked James (White) if we could bring our Wednesdays over here,” Hofeldt said.

“That led to great success, creating much more room for the dancers and it was a room that we always wanted to be in. It was the Broken Spoke; it was legend because of all the people who have played here and it’s the most honest door in town. It’s always been the top place for a country band.”

BrianHcloseupHofeldt said his band performs today what fellow musician and friend Dale Watson refers to as, “Ameripolitan music.”

“Watson’s idea stems from the concept that if Americana music comes from Woody Guthrie,  then Ameripolitian comes from Jimmy Rogers. Ameripolitan music borrows musical concepts from Americana, roots, country, hillbilly, rockabilly and honky tonk genres,” he said.

Hofeldt and Villanueva met in Portland, OR, a place some regard as Austin’s “sister city.” The Northwestern coastal town remains cold and rainy most of the year and lacks what Hofeldt deems to be the single most important ingredient to launching his band’s success in 1994.

“One of the many interesting and unique aspects of Texas is the dance hall scene. The Broken Spoke being one of the main and greatest ones in the state of Texas, to me, it’s the greatest honky tonk in the known universe.  That’s just my opinion, but I think a lot of people share it,” he said.

“People come together here. You’ll have patrons from eight to 80 years old. Grandparents and the whole family come. That’s something unique that didn’t exist up in Oregon.”

Moving to Austin from Portland as a 26-year-old musician felt a lot like “going to trade school,” he said.

“I came to Austin in 1992-1993, and it was just full of all these great guitar players and musicians. Rent was still cheap then and breakfast tacos were 79 cents. There was this university of 50,000 kids, half of whom were girls – more than half. It just seemed like heaven,” he said. “The weather was good and it was just fantastic.”

Hofeldt said that his friend, Villanueva, first discovered Austin on his way traveling to Nashville; when he stopped here he just never left.

“He said to me, ‘You gotta come down and visit.’ So I came down to visit in ’91 or ’92 and I just was blown away. There were all these great bands, this great music scene and Tony made sure to take me here to the Broken Spoke. I think that’s part of the tradition — whenever anyone comes to town, people bring them to the Broken Spoke,” he said.

“I probably saw Alvin (Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys.) We went to a whole lot of places too that don’t even exist anymore, like Henry’s and The Black Cat.”

Villanueva and Hofeldt formed a special bond as former bandleaders of their own separate bands, but they also played together in another band as sidemen before moving from Portland to Austin.

“The singer from that band went ‘AWOL’ one time, right in the middle of recording. We were making a record, so Tony said ‘Hey, I could try singin’ a few of these tunes.’ The bandleader told him to give it a shot. As soon as Tony started singin’ he just brought the band up to a level where it had never been before,” Hofeldt said.

“Tony was, and still is, an exceptional singer. He has a charismatic, wonderful voice. That’s when he blew me away in the studio, hearing how he came across on tape and how great he was. After that, he and I talked and decided to get our own band goin’.”

Hofeldt said both he and Villanueva decided to take their music in a different direction. Shortly after, Villanueva moved to Austin. Hofeldt followed Villanueva and afterwards the two almost immediately put together a band here.

“It’s funny. We put together the band and we had a gig. There were four of us. We booked a gig before we even had a name. We were at a typical outdoor Austin barbecue and started throwin’ around ideas. Both Tony and I had grandfathers who worked for the railroad,” he said.

“So, we sort of wanted a railroad theme, but we also felt a little hubris and thought we’d help put country music back on the right track.  We thought we’d ‘derail’ the status quo and do our own thing, which was essentially keeping closer to the roots of country music.”

Villanueva had been writing original music and the two of them began to write together for this new band.

“Tony presented me with a handful of songs at that point that I thought were great. He had played some of them for me before he moved here to Austin. I actually did a couple of his songs in my solo act that I was doing back in Portland,” he said.

“Tony’s songs had made an impression on me as well as his singing. We had a kinship and we sang together really naturally too. We had such a connection – one like you just don’t really find more than one of in life. It was a beautiful thing.”

Hofeldt quit his job laying carpet. Villanueva quit his job working as a custodian at Motorola.  They began a small painting company together called, ‘The Detailers’, to go along with the band name and did this between gigs while waiting for the band to take off.

“Austin was booming in ’93 and I had gotten a job at a carpet-laying company. I’d never laid carpet before,” he said. “But everybody was hiring, so I just picked that because it was good money — but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Hofeldt some years later saw his former boss in the crowd at the Broken Spoke when the Derailers performed.

“He’d come out and seen us before, and he reminded me that he remembered me sayin’ ‘Carl, I didn’t move to Austin to lay carpet. I’ve got to quit, man.’  And eventually, we quit our jobs to go at music full time.” Hofeldt said.

The band took this town by storm.

“We were fortunate. We had a magical partnership and the timing was perfect.  Country music had gotten bigger than it ever was before. That was the Garth Brooks’ heyday. Everybody, like Alan Jackson sang, had ‘Gone Country.’ Country was just so big it created room for Alternative Country — the same way it was with rock n roll — and Texas was big too.” he said.

“That’s when Ann Richards was governor. She was popular and good to musicians too. Folks at the capital started to focus more on Texas music as far as some legislative changes were concerned, including a law which allows, if you’re a recording and working musician, that any equipment you buy and is used for recording in the state of Texas, you don’t have to pay sales tax on it. So, that was the state puttin’ their money where their mouth was. That helped even more to make Austin the ‘Live Music Capital of the World.’ That’s cool because a lot of times, people only pay lip service to things.”

Hofeldt said that he realized at the time that his and Villanueva’s fortunes depended upon securing a future playing at the Broken Spoke.

“He (owner James White) already knew of us; we had come in and had talked to him before and had asked him for gigs. I think (White’s youngest daughter,) Ginny White had been out to our ‘Train Wreck Wednesdays’ at the Continental Club and had told her daddy about that. She helped us to get in,” he said.

“She must’ve been barely just 21 at that time when I was 27 or 28 and Steve Wertheimer, the owner of the Continental Club, was good friends with James. I’ve always said that the three greatest club owners in this town were James White, Steve Wertheimer and the late-great Clifford Antone – all of whom would spend time at the Broken Spoke.”

He said the three club owners visited one another’s clubs often in those days.

“It’s unusual. You don’t see a lot of club owner go to other clubs. When we moved our ‘Train Wreck Wednesdays’ over to here, Steve Wertheimer was in the audience every Wednesday, even though we had moved from his club,” Hofeldt said.

Also fortuitously, another one of Wertheimer’s friends included John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records, who became a partner in Watermelon Records, the Derailers’ first label, after their local release, Live Tracks, on the fledgling Freedom label. The Derailers’ sweet Austin beginnings had launched a worldwide musical career.

“It’s good to count your blessings and to look back and be thankful for the good fortunes that presented themselves. I have to say though, that we really, really worked hard in addition,” he said.

“When you’re given an opportunity like that, you have to take advantage of it and just work your butt off  — and we did.”

In 1998 alone, the Derailers worked 320 gigs, often zigzagging across the United States and the globe.

“That was sometimes two-a-day shows – sometimes during the day at a record store or radio station, and later at a club. We did a lot of work that year. I would also say that in the surrounding years of 1997 and 1999 we worked around 275 days and in 1995 and 2000 we worked around 250. We really, really worked hard,” he said.

“That’s when we moved to weekends here (at the Broken Spoke) and because we were on the road so much we couldn’t do a residency anymore, (like the Wednesday gigs were). So we did a weekend once a month – which is generally what most bands do here. Our once a month at the Spoke ensured that we’d be home at least once a month. So it was our saving grace really; it always has been.”

He said he remembers otherwise passing through Austin, just another stop on their tours throughout the United States and all across the world.

“At least we got to be in our own homes one night though, two maybe, and always back here at the Broken Spoke,” Hofeldt said.

“That’s just what you have to do. We were door-to-door honky tonk salesmen.”

Burnout followed. The Derailers  had signed with two major labels, including Sire Records, a division of Warner Brothers Records and then Sony Records and Lucky Dog to produce their albums.

“Our first major was the label that produced the Pretenders, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Madonna, — bands not exactly in our genre, but a great label with a great label head who was just a real fan of music, (cofounder and chairman of Sire Records,) Seymour Stein, who still runs that label, if I’m not mistaken,” Hofeldt said.

“Then we were with Sony out of Nashville for a couple of records after that. When you’re with two major labels like that they want you out there sellin’ their product, so, we were out on the road all of the time – it was a burnout.”

The consequences proved detrimental to their personal lives. He remembers feeling “a little bit of tension in the studio” as early as 1998 while working on the Derailers’ album, Full Western Dress, which included a cameo performance by Buck Owens himself. The band’s members felt overworked and torn between their musical careers and their personal lives, Hofeldt said.

“It was just building up in a lot of areas in our lives, personally,” he said. “Tony had a family. He was the only one who had a family at the time, so I think it was hardest on him, for sure. He would come back off the road and his kids would be taller. All those days he missed were really hard on him.”

Not long after the release of the album, Villanueva fell ill.

“Tony got real sick. He was in ICU with pneumonia.  We had to do a week or two of gigs without him. It was scary. He didn’t look good and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Hofeldt said.

“He became a born again Christian and I think his priorities just changed completely. He wanted to focus on his family and then spreading the message, so he wasn’t really interested in music anymore. It wasn’t like it was an angry breakup or anything.”

Hofeldt said meanwhile, he filed for divorce from his own marriage about that same time.

“I was married at the time and trying to get out of that marriage. I was married to a Texas woman. I had never had anyone pull a gun on me before, but my wife pulled a gun on me when I wouldn’t shut off the TV,” he said.

“I thought maybe all Texas women were like that. I just kind of took it in stride. Later I realized that it was not really a healthy thing. I just didn’t have time really to even get divorced. That’s how busy we were.”

Hofeldt eventually divorced and found his true love, Tiffany Hofeldt, a professional photographer in Austin.

“With Tony leaving, it really changed things up. That really threw me for a loop,” Hofeldt said. “The divorce with my first wife was something that was inevitable. It was bound to happen, I just needed time to do it, but Tony leaving was like a real divorce – or a death in the family, more like. He was still around, but he quickly moved back to Oregon. I lost my musical partner, so I was afloat for a while there.”

Meanwhile, Hofeldt decided to step up his musical game and to lead the band that included drummer and percussionist Scott Matthews, Ed Adkins on bass and vocals, and pedal steel and Dobro player Chris Schlozhauer as well as “Sweet” Basil McJagger, who played piano and organs. Matthews and McJagger remain as original band members of the Derailers to this day.

“I had three or four other musicians lookin’ at me like ‘What are we goin’ to do?’ So I had to do something. So I finally decided to do something. There was no way I was going to replace Tony; he was irreplaceable in my heart and physically in every way. I couldn’t get anyone who could sing with me that way,” Hofeldt said.

“I had always sung harmony with Tony, but it was only on a quarter of the songs that I sang the lead stuff — kind of like the front man.  I just felt like it wasn’t going to work to try to replace Tony with another singing partner with me. We had always joked that Tony was a little bit country and I was a little bit rock and roll – kind of like Donny and Marie (Osmond.) That’s what kind of made up the sound of our band.”

He said that the band had to meet their obligations to perform at places already on the schedule. Once the Derailers met those dates, they continued to tour and began planning a new album. Two years passed. In 2005 the Derailers recorded their hit Soldiers of Love album and released it to stores in 2006.

“It was little bit of a lull in recording, but not much of a lull in live performing. We kept on going and it was probably as important as anything at that point to reintroduce the newly modified Derailers back to everybody,” he said.

“Take it as you will, like or not like it as much — however you want it, we let them know we were still alive and well. In this business, if you’re not around awhile, people forget about you real quick.”

Hofeldt admitted that the Derailers have been lucky over the years.

“We’ve been lucky, yes we have and I think our home base, the Broken Spoke was such an essential part of that. James kept us on here and there was probably a lull in attendance for a year or so and then it popped back up,” he said.

“I believe that as far as his regular bands who come through here, we were one of his consistently best-drawing bands. I think we still hold the record of attendance here.”

From 2001 through 2003, the Derailers broke all previous records for drawing capacity crowds at the Broken Spoke, he said.

“One night, we had around 968 folks out at one show. They came in and out. They weren’t here all at the same time,” Hofeldt said. “You can’t keep the people away. They all wanted to be here. That’s tough. I always say that we had 968 total. Not at the same time. Some came in and some went out — just to be clear for the sake of the fire marshall.”

He said that in 2006 the Derailers found their sweet spot again with their fans.

“We did what we did by sticking to our roots, from where we came from, which was the Texas dance hall scene, simply the Broken Spoke. We had learned how to entertain from this room and that required playing a variety of music,” he said.

“They don’t want the same beat all the time. A lot of our music was oriented towards dancers and out of that came a variety of music that just made up our sound. It’s hard to tell which came first – the chicken or the egg, there, but I think that’s what kept the people comin’ back even when things had changed a little bit.”

It helped that their fans associated the Derailers’ music to a band, instead of a single person or front man. White’s support also motivated Hofeldt, he said.

“Everybody knows the name of The Beatles, but not everybody knows the names of the guys in Steppenwolf, for example. So, in that regard I was fortunate. ‘Where’s that other guy?’ was sort of the extent of what people asked,” he said.

“They just kept accepting us and James believed in us and believed that we’d come back and that was a big part of it too. Having somebody that we knew and trusted for that many years to keep believing in me, meant a lot to me personally.”

During their banner year of 2006, the Derailers began to represent the Broken Spoke. The band also began to draw a newer crowd that never questioned its musical origins.

It drew the attention one patron, legendary songwriter James E. “Buzz” Cason, who had already written songs for The Beatles, Pearl Jam and U2. Cason co-authored his greatest hit, “Everlasting Love,” with Mac Gayden before 1967 when Robert Knight recorded the song.

“We just had our heads down and were workin’ to make this thing continue. Soldiers of Love was our first record without Tony and we had a song on it that album called ‘Cold Beer, Hot Women, and Cool Country Music’ which we wrote about the Broken Spoke,” Hofeldt said.

“There’s a line in there ‘Got me a table with my name right on it,’ and it includes a bit of James’ nightly spiel: ‘We’ve got cold beer, good music, good whisky, home of the best chicken fried steak in town…’ So we were kind of thinkin’ about that when I wrote that song with my pal, Buzz Cason.”

Cason had come out to watch the Derailers at the Broken Spoke and befriended Hofeldt.

“When you’re first impressed by the Broken Spoke it hits you pretty strong. I think his (Cason’s) impressions were still fresh when he said ‘Man, comin’ out to see you guys – cold beer, hot women, and cool country music sort of sums it up.’ I went to his place in Nashville and we wrote it,” he said.

The old Derailers fans remained loyal as well. Waterloo Ice House, used their song as a soundtrack for a radio commercial.

“I had to re-sing that part ‘Cold beer, good food at the Waterloo Ice House.’ It all helped,” he said.

Then after Buck Owens’ death March 26, 2006, the Derailers began work on a tribute album to him, entitled: Under the Influence of Buck, that included 13 of the country music star’s classic hits. They released the album in 2007.

“He had been a big influence on us. He had 22 number one songs, so even picking out of his number ones would have been too much for an album,” Hofeldt said. “Buck had played here too. He used to tour around with his guitar player, Don Rich, and sometimes just pick up a band in the early days.”

Often in the middle of their show at the Broken Spoke, White joins the Derailers on stage to sing a medley of Owens’ songs.

The Derailers traditionally play lots of other legendary songs once performed by their original singing stars at the Broken Spoke, including Charlie Walker’s hit, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.” The Derailers perform Walker’s dance hall classic, written by the late great Harlan Howard, every Saturday night that they perform at the Broken Spoke.

Hofeldt said that he feels a fraternity of friendship among the photos of all the stars who have performed at the Broken Spoke in the last five decades. He said he shares that feeling with other regularly performing musicians who play at the Broken Spoke including Alvin Crow, Cornell Hurd, and Dale Watson.

“It’s interesting and really cool to be part of the legendary aspect of this dance hall,” he said.

At the end of every Saturday night when they perform there, the Derailers sing the old Hank Williams’ song, “I Saw the Light.” White and his son-in-law, Mike Peacock, often join them on stage to sing along.

“I’ll say: ‘It’s technically Sunday morning now, everyone. It’s after midnight; it’s technically Sunday so we’ll send you out with a little gospel number,’” Hofeldt said.

“We used to do ‘Good Night Irene,’ but then we switched over to doin’ ‘I Saw the Light.’ It’s just become our tradition of the way we end the night here at the Broken Spoke – a little gospel ending there. Though, I’m sure some of them are not going to make it to church too early.”

Hofeldt equates the Broken Spoke to a place where fans for 50 years have gone to worship live country music — it has its own “magical and legendary” spirit, captured in photographs within its hallowed dance hall walls.

“As I say, it’s the greatest honky tonk in the known universe. It is and everybody knows it. It’s in Texas and ‘Texas music is better,’ as Cornell Hurd says,” Hofeldt said.

White’s often demonstrates an evangelical-like persona during nights at the Broken Spoke, as he welcomes visitors from near and as far away as Japan, Norway, and the Netherlands, he said.

“There’s a timeless aspect to walkin’ into the Broken Spoke on any given night. I’d say it could have been or feels like 1964, when James first opened the Spoke. James and Annetta built it and opened it and he’s still standin’ there greeting everyone who comes to the door,” he said.

“That’s also something that is very, very special to people – the fact that they got to meet Mr. James White. It’s not like he has to do that. This is a successful brand and place. He does it because he loves it. He loves being part of this empire that he’s built at the Broken Spoke. He’s grateful to those people as we all are, for comin’ out, and he wants to thank them and invite them in. That really makes big difference about how people perceive where they’ve visited.”

Both James and Annetta White suffered through health problems in recent years  — he has had his share of heart troubles and she battled and survived cancer. Still, the two remain tougher and stronger than ever. They have a perfect relationship that works well, Hofeldt said.

“I see him as vital as ever, more so in some ways and that’s really awesome. We’re like a family all of us,” Hofeldt said.

“I’m just happy that James is as good as ever and Annetta whipped cancer’s ass. That’s how she’d say it too.”

Hofeldt said just like a family, the Whites each have roles to play. Acting as a disciplinarian, Annetta White, has been “mad as a hornet” at times with him. Most recently Annetta White let him know how she felt when the Derailers performed an extended version of the song, “Susie Q,” originally recorded in 1956 by rockabilly singer, Dale Hawkins. Creedence Clearwater Revival popularized the song also covered by the Rolling Stones in 1964.

“She did not mince words with me about how she did not want to hear that song in here anymore,” he said.

“I said, ‘Gee, it hurts my feelings that you don’t like my music. It’s an old classic song.’ That’s how I played it. I didn’t argue or get mad back at her because she gets over it quick. She’s really sweet inside. She really is. She’s the first one to give me a hug when I come back here.”

He said he always imagined himself as a leader of a country band. His life is great.

“I’m living my dream. I feel very fortunate. Sometimes, I just focus on that. Like Carl Jung says, ‘We are always happiest when we are dreaming.’ We are dreaming about what we want to achieve or what our lives will be like in the future, that’s when we’re happiest. But those things happen to you and you pass them by and push them away because you’re always looking ahead,” Hofeldt said.

“There are so many times that I’ve done that in my life. My life is great and it’s due in no small part to my relationship with James and Annetta White and the Broken Spoke. It’s no small part and that’s somethin’ that I’m grateful for and will always keep me deeply connected to this place.”

Other original members of the Derailers include Matthews and McJagger, as well as Vic Gerard, who has returned to the band after a hiatus from raising a family.  He originally performed as a Derailer in the 1990s. Occasionally, Mike Daily, will also sit in to play steel when he’s not performing with the Ace in the Hole band, now that George Strait has stopped touring.

 Here’s the link to my story posted in the Americana Rhythm Music magazine: http://issuu.com/djgregt/docs/arissue54web/1

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