The Derailers,
Soldiers of Love
(Palo Duro, 2006)

Having endured the commercial disappointment of two major-label releases and the departure of co-founder Tony Villanueva, the Derailers anticipated ... well, derailment. Reports circulated that after five CDs, the Texas-based pop-rock-country band was packing its trunk and heading down the track that would take it to wherever exhausted musical acts go to die. Happily, after a chance meeting with ex-rockabilly cat, Nashville songwriter and record producer Buzz Cason, a reinvigorated Derailers and then Soldiers of Love came to be, and somewhere in the course of all this a signing to a sympathetic independent record label, Palo Duro, which caters to Texas artists of the rooted persuasion.

The standard rap against the old Derailers, originally a sort of Texas answer to Buck Owens's revered Buckaroos, was the unevenness of their material. No such complaint is likely to be hurled against the 14 consistently strong cuts here. Brian Hofeldt, Derailers' front man and surviving co-founder, wrote or co-wrote -- usually with Cason, a man who clearly knows his way around commercial pop songs -- most of the numbers. The title piece, composed by Cason and Tony Moon, was a minor hit for soul legend Arthur Alexander and was also in the Beatles' early repertoire.

Overall, Soldiers feels something like a 1960s AM Top-40-radio playlist. There are lots of smooth harmonies and swooning, melodic songs celebrating or lamenting love's ups or downs, along with novelty exercises and straightforward rock 'n' roll, among the latter Cason and Hofeldt's "Donna Sue Earline," set to the stomping Bo Diddley beat that makes any song that steals it impossible to dislove. The Derailers slyly insert some harmony interludes, however, out of sunshine-pop and guilty pleasures like the Fifth Dimension and Spanky & Our Gang. "The One Before Me" (Cason and Anthony Crawford) could be a Beatles outtake. From a less elevated source -- the signature phrase of redneck comedian Larry the Cable Guy -- Cason and Hofeldt fashion the good-natured rockabilly romp "Get 'Er Done."

Of course, the Derailers haven't forgotten country music. "Cold Beer, Hot Women, & Cool Country Music" -- another Cason/Hofeldt number -- opens the disc (misleadingly, perhaps, to listeners anticipating a pure hillbilly album). The title parodies a couple of country classics, "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, & Loud, Loud Music" and "Red Necks, White Socks, & Blue Ribbon Beer." The Tennessee Three-style ballad "An American Man" (Hofeldt) is one of a torrent of Johnny Cash tributes we may expect to hear in the years to come as Cash's reputation grows to rival Hank Williams'. And honkytonk doesn't get any honkytonkier than the two closing cuts -- "You're Looking at the Man" and "It's Never Too Late for a Party" -- which take the band back to where it all started, to a mythical town that might as well be called Bakersfield, Texas.

by Jerome Clark
18 November 2006

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