Hipster fans of alt-country tend to steer clear of the Derailers. After all, the Austin, Texas-based band doesn’t fit the Whiskeytown/Old 97s/Son Volt mold of Parsons-influenced alt-country band. Instead, the quartet, led by lead singer Tony Villanueva and guitarist/singer Brian Hofeldt, use the Derailers to celebrate the so-called Bakersfield Sound — a hardcore brand of honky tonk made popular by Buck Owens in the 1950s. In other words, they’re the kind of band that makes people who don’t listen to alt-country think that alt-country and country are one and the same.
As for the Derailers, while one would be inclined to think that a band performing neo-Bakersfield would be inclined towards devotion to tradition and purity, the Derailers have never shied away from the chance to taste commercial stardom. Heck, the band has appeared on Country Music Television (CMT) — unheard of or flat-out undesired in many alt-country circles — and once had a promotional tie-in with Doritos. With that said, it’s not entirely surprising that the Derailers fifth studio album, Genuine (pronounced “jen-you-WINE”, according to the press release) often drifts into derivative genre exercise.
Like Ryan Adams and his bid for a commercial fanbase, Gold, Genuine plays like a game of Name That Influence. But where Gold was Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones, Genuine calls to mind Buck Owens (on “Take It Back”), Roy Orbison (the sentimental “Alone with You”), and Marty Robbins (Latin-twang hybrid “Leave a Message, Juanita”) among others. The genre hopping is a testament to the band’s mastery over their instruments, but auditory disorientation soon sets in. While there’s nothing wrong with a band sonically paying tribute to their musical heroes, the Derailers efforts to please a wide-ranging (read: homogenous) fanbase (to say nothing of country music radio programmers) illustrates a continued devolution of the band.
The Derailers’ finest moment, 1999’s Full Western Dress was produced by Blasters frontman, Dave Alvin. Alt-country icon and overall genius Alvin had an uncanny knack (as he did with the beloved Blasters) for letting the Derailers honor their heroes while sounding like no one but the Derailers. Since the band moved to Lucky Dog, however, production duties have been handled by Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, Tammy Wynette) who makes the band sound like everyone but the Derailers. To wit, the back half of the album: barroom-lite on “Uncool”, which has rants that run the gamut from the ubiquity of purple hair to tattoos on mothers; ’60s faux-Brit garage rock on album highlight “Scratch My Itch”, (Hofeldt calls the sound “Bakerpool/Liversfield”); and straight-up country ballad “Whole Other World”, an unabashed pitch for airplay on Hot Nashville radio stations. As Hofeldt is quoted as saying in the press release, “It’s what radio should respond to …. I think it’s what people want to hear.” Does that send shivers down anyone else’s spine?
Criticizing a band for wanting commercial success is petty behavior for a critic, but Genuine‘s shortcoming is trying too hard for the brass ring. This becomes evident upon realizing that the album’s “least-ambitious” tracks double as the standouts. In addition to the aforementioned “Scratch My Itch”, album opener “The Way to My Heart” has a confidence and driving rhythm section that calls to mind classic Derailers. Their cover of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos “The Happy Go Lucky Guitar” and the loosey-goosey (read: dopey but winning) “I Love Me Some Elvis” show a band that is content to simply play fun, energetic music.
Eighteen different credited songwriters are spread over Genuine‘s 12 tracks; that’s Britney Spears/J. Lo territory, not neo-Bakersfield alt-country. Between too many writers and too many homages, Genuine loses its original luster.