The Derailers – Ticket to ride
“Being a country band, we want to be in the mainstream country establishment to whatever extent they’ll welcome us,” Hofeldt says. This motivation has driven the Derailers for awhile now, but it’s a desire the band’s previous albums haven’t quite fulfilled. Here Come The Derailers, more than any of the group’s previous releases, has the sonic punch and pop sparkle necessary to realize their Beatles-by-way-of-Bakersfield ambitions. To the degree the new project finally takes advantage of the possibilities provided by a recording studio, you might even say that Here Come The Derailers is the first real record of the band’s career.
“Across the board, the band feels this is head-and-shoulders above the rest of our stuff,” Villanueva claims. “I think time was a big factor, maturing, getting a more singular sound. But I also think Kyle [Lehning] coming in to produce was key. He did a really good job helping us choose material; the songs fit us so well that it made it just kind of easy to go in and play like the Derailers play. Kyle brought out our strengths, but then fleshed them out with some subtleties that I think make [the new album] sonically work really well.
“We’ve updated our sound,” he continues. “We’ve kept the spirit of what we like about country, which is based a lot in the past. But to be competitive and to sound current, there’s things you can do, and I think that’s what Kyle did producing.”
Indeed, the album possesses newfound variety and vibrancy. The rhythm tracks swing, and Hofeldt’s guitar snaps, harder than anything the band has cut previously. The arrangements include touches of organ, piano, mandolin and pedal steel, among other embellishments. One significant consequence of these modifications is that the new recordings boast an emotional intensity and a focus on the songs that’s typically absent, for example, in the band’s live shows, where the visceral thrill of the moment typically trumps reflection. The album’s best moments, like all good records, encourage repeat listenings.
It’s the band’s hope that the new and improved sonics, as well as the richer textures and more pronounced emotions of the new arrangements, will finally land either “More Of Your Love” (the Kostas-penned and Mavericks-sounding opening track slated to be the first single and video) or one of its follow-ups in heavy rotation.
“We’ve cultivated an audience and a fan base for five hard years of touring,” Hofeldt says, “and we have the greatest, most enthusiastic audience that I’ve ever seen for any band, people who really wish for us to succeed and who are pulling for us. One of their wishes, as well as ours, is that they can hear us on the radio. There’s a lot of people out there who would like to hear the kind of music they enjoy on the radio and not have to seek it out in nooks and crannies. That was something we wanted to be part of.”
This strategy grows from the band’s conviction that the future of the music they love will play itself out, as it has most always done, on the radio. And that alternative country music, broadly defined, likely will impact that future not by re-creating radio in its own lo-fi image, but by reaching out to the mainstream country audience. One way this can be done is for songwriters to create work that finds its way on to mainstream recordings — as, for example, Buddy & Julie Miller and Bruce Robison have done. But another is for musicians to meet radio halfway while being careful not to sacrifice what made them special in the first place. For the Derailers, “They’re going to make a big star out of me and all I got to do is act naturally” isn’t just a line from a Buck Owens hit they like to sing: It’s a mission statement.
“Here’s what we’re trying to do,” Hofeldt emphasizes. “We’re trying to put our hand out; we’re offering our hand to radio. I don’t think we’ve had to compromise ourselves in any way to do that. And the time may be good for this. The country radio establishment seems a little bit more willing to look for different things now. Mark McGuinn, for example, kind of came out of left field. His isn’t a traditional sound or anything, but it was from an independent source. David Ball has a new record coming out that really has a traditional feel. So we’re hopeful we can make a go of it.”
The band knows such commercial ambitions place them at odds with predominant alternative country sensibilities. “We’ve always felt it was important to not rag on the country music establishment,” Hofeldt says. “Lots of people in the alt-country scene hold up Garth Brooks, for instance, as the anti-Hank or the devil. Whereas to us, people like Garth Brooks, and the people who came along in his wake, widened and broadened and enriched and made bigger than ever the country music audience. So big, in fact, that it allowed for an alternative, it allowed for options to develop. That’s where we came in.”
“You know,” Hofeldt remembers, “it was Dave Alvin [who produced the band’s three previous efforts] that encouraged us to get a Nashville producer. In fact, he had told us before Full Western Dress, ‘You guys are a country band, you need to be working with a Nashville producer because they know what sounds need to be on the radio.’ We told him then we wanted to work with him again, especially [after signing with Sire] when we had full-budget capabilities. I think Full Western Dress turned out great and Dave did a great job. But it was his encouragement to get a Nashville guy.”
The Nashville guy they chose, Kyle Lehning, had all the studio expertise they needed. Before becoming a producer, Lehning had engineered records by everyone from Waylon Jennings and Chuck Berry to Firefall. He also displayed an affinity for the range of country music — past and present, traditional and pop — that the Derailers were seeking.
This blend of old school and new is perhaps best heard on a song Hofeldt and Villanueva co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale, “Your Guess Is As Good As Mine”. It’s two and a half minutes of two-step heaven that combines the contemporary electricity of, say, the latest guitar-driven Brooks & Dunn hit with the hard drive of George Strait’s Ace In The Hole band at its swinging, stadium-concert best.
“Kyle just exuded confidence, and that really rubbed off on our performances,” Hofeldt says. “We’d never cut in Nashville before, and you hear stories of people not playing with their own bands on record, just using the singers. But when we told Kyle we didn’t want to do that, that wasn’t what we were about, he was behind us all the way.