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The Soul of a songwriter: How Derek Paul and The Handsome Devils found their sound and their soul

Soul of a songwriter

Derek Paul unwinds at The Deli in Norman. The singer/songwriter turned band leader will front The Handsome Devils at the first Summer Breeze concert of 2015.The show starts at 7:30 p.m., May 17. The band’s second album will be released in Norman on May 14 at The Deli. 



Mack Burke / NTown

“Some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul. That you have to earn one through suffering and thought and prayer.”

—Lisa Simpson


The sagacious moral compass of the Simpson family said that quote to her brother, Bart, when he reacquired his soul after a harrowing ordeal. Despite the fact that the characters never change clothes, or seem to carry any wisdom from one episode to the next, Lisa’s point was a meaningful one that transcends the 2-D backdrop of the iconic cartoon.

Americana songwriter and Handsome Devils frontman Derek Paul might be the perfect embodiment of that idea. From his experience as a soldier in the army or via personal loss, he’s earned what can be readily heard in his music. There’s soul there. A weight and honesty that can’t be conjured. It can’t be manufactured. While his songs are simple — something he takes great pride in — the forces behind them are complex.

Derek Paul and The Handsome Devils, fresh off an album-release show at The Wormy Dog Saloon in OKC, will have a Norman release show May 14 at The Deli. Then, they’ll kick off this year’s Summer Breeze Concert Series May 17 at Lions Park. The band will take the stage and play out a setting sun and serenade a park full of summer music lovers. It promises to be a night of great music. But there’s a bigger story here than the album, or the concert. 

First, a little band history: The band formed as a long distance relationship between old friends. Paul, Derek and Devon Carothers had grown up together and began making music as a trio while Paul was attending Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Then, things began to fall into place. The band piqued the interest of an investor. That meant the right gear, album funding, a van and a chance.

So, Paul took the chance, moved back to Oklahoma and began laying the ground work for the album, the band and the bright future they all hoped lay ahead.

Everything was moving in the right direction. 

That picture changed over night. In February of 2013, Paul’s father, Carl Reber “Chuck” Goff Jr., was killed in a two-car collision in Noble. “Chuck,” or “my Pops,” as Paul refers to him, was the bass player for country music superstar Toby Keith’s band for 25 years. He was Paul’s “best friend.” His mentor. 

“At first he was hard on me. He was a music man. He co-wrote two top-10 songs … So he wasn’t going to give you a break on anything. Let me put it this way: My brother started doing offshore oil work. My Dad’s never done offshore oil work, but he’d tell you how to do all of it ... He wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that a song you wrote was horrible or trite. You know, every time you write a song, you think it’s great … until you bring it to him.”

“There are so many things that we do now because of him … He started playing music at 13 professionally. He knew what he was talking about. Now, if not once a day, at least once a week, I’ll do something and go ‘ah! you were right again.”

“We did the first album in three days and we did pre production for the new album the weekend my dad died. So, that kind of halted everything.”

With the death of Paul’s father, the bright future was now obscured by dark clouds, leaving Paul and his bandmates looking for a shred of silver lining.  

Recording with producer Wes Sharon at Studio 115, the band was going about it in two-to-three-day sessions. The process was bogged down. During that period, the band went through three lead guitar players. On top of the technical hang ups, Paul was dealing, as best anybody can, with the loss of his father. 

“Every guitar player that’s ever been in our band was involved in some way with this album,” Paul said. The list: Alan Orebaugh, Zane Russell, Blake Lennon and the band’s current axe man, Tyler Smith. Though Smith, a founding member of the band Pidgin, doesn’t appear on the album, he’s been a big part of the band moving forward. 

Wisely, Paul also utilized the talents of Norman’s musical elite, including, John Knudson, Ryan Engleman and Camille Harp. 

“We had a pretty good cast of characters on this album,” Paul said. “The first album, we had only been a band for three months. I wasn’t even living in this state. So, in a way I consider this our freshman album.”

Nearly two years later, the album is finally finished and the band couldn’t be happier with the result. They’ve found more than a silver lining in the polished collection of break up tunes and heavy-leaning songs about death and loss set to catchy hooks and tasteful, simple arrangements. It’s a fair reflection of Paul as a person who exists in a state of personal dissonance. He’s a clever wordsmith, a perpetual jokester, at times a political poet and underneath it all a serious man colored by his experiences as a soldier. He’s an Iraq war veteran, a warrior of life and bleeding soul whose salvation lies in the songs he writes. They’re genuine. Real as the man himself.

As for break up songs, Paul said “Aren’t they all in some way?” His penchant for catharsis makes him a sort of Americana/Red Dirt version of Ben Folds, subbing acoustic guitar for piano. When asked if he saw any connection, he just laughed and shared another anecdote in his endless arsenal. 

“The funny thing about Ben Folds, I got into him when I was at Fort Riley training to go to Iraq. My buddy, (a sergeant) who was a few years older than me and knew the ropes a little better took me under his wing. He really liked that Ben Folds live album and every morning we’d wake up and listen to that song ‘Army,’ where it says ‘Well I thought about the Army. Dad said son you’re f****** high …” That’s kind of a prophetic song, because he talks about not joining the Army and joining a band instead. But, yeah, they’re pretty much all heartbreak songs in one way or another.”

An old songwriting adage says “write what you know.” Paul is certainly true to that mantra and he’s got plenty of experience to draw from. 

“Honestly, I’ve never been able to write a song that’s not personal. I wish I could do that. Like John Prine’s ‘Angel from Montgomery,’ writing from a woman’s perspective like he never lived. I’ve never been able to do that. It’s always personal stuff. I’ve learned how to disguise it a bit. Like, I’ll take a breakup and make it sound like a bad drug deal or something.”

Because it’s almost impossible to tell in print, that last bit was a joke. Probably. But that’s what makes him intriguing. Like many great comedic minds, Paul has a dark sense of humor. Yet, he’s also soul bearing. One of the new album’s finer moments is a song called “Wolves.” A tardy addition, it was the last song Paul’s dad ever got to hear. In fact, he only got to hear a sketch of it. 

“I just had the idea, the framework and part of the first verse. So, I sat down and played him the chord structure and the progression and first verse and kind of hummed what I didn’t have yet. And he died the next day. That song wrote itself after that. 

“The weirdest thing about it though, was we recorded it in Wes (Sharon’s) studio. Professional studio. So, unless we get a hail storm, we’re not getting any outside sound. My Dad was really into birds … He loved birds. So, at the end of ‘Wolves,’ we recorded it and the end is really delicate, with just some acoustic. We got done. Laid it down and we’re listening to it. Then, I hear this bird chirp. I was like ‘rewind that.’ Somehow a bird got into the studio and if you were to sample a bird chirping, this was the chirp. As soon as the last note fades out you just hear this bird chirping. That’s the last thing you hear on the album. So, I think he’s still with me. I just don’t think the universe will allow two of us to be successful in music at the same time.”

The finished product was one Paul dedicated to his “Pops” and fittingly so. The lyrics deal with the idea that problems of youth are easily solved. As you get older the problems get more complicated, harder to beat. Like the song says, “these wolves out here ain’t afraid of fire.” 

A simple wave of the torch won’t take away pain and trouble. Not anymore. But for Paul, his songwriting might have that power. He’s certainly earned it. 

Mack Burke

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Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.