By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Eleven Hundred Springs
Matt Hillyer was country before he wasn't cool, before Lone Star Trio degenerated into a bad Reverend Horton Heat impression, before he formed Strap and trotted out an even worse imitation of ZZ Top--or was it Pantera? Back then, at the beginning of the decade, Hillyer made some extra scratch covering country classics and obscurities a few nights a month at Naomi's and Muddy Waters as a member of The Collyers (with The Calways' Todd Deatherage, among others). Yet judging by Eleven Hundred Springs' debut, he probably would have done it for free. The disc's dozen tracks are no different from the Merle Haggard and Buck Owens songs he played with The Collyers; the names may have changed, but the songs remain the same, all weeping fiddles and single-string guitar leads. Even the lyrics sound as though they were written decades ago by Johnny Horton ("The Only Thing She Left Me (Was the Blues)") or Ernest Tubb ("Springtime in Texas"), maybe even George Jones ("Anywhere I'm Loving You"), words that tell tales of tears and beer and the lost love that makes them both start to pour.
Calling the songs on Welcome to... originals stretches the definition of the word until it breaks into a million pieces of black vinyl, dusty 45s in a roadhouse jukebox somewhere in West Texas. That's not to say that the album isn't enjoyable, but after a few listens, you begin to wonder whether it's the songs on Welcome to... that are good, or just the ones they remind you of. At least Hillyer and the band--bassist Steve Berg, drummer Bruce Alford (ex of Vibrolux), fiddle player Jason Garner--play it straight, ignoring the Twin/Tone twang of bands such as Whiskeytown and all the other fifth-generation Uncle Tupelo copies that keep No Depression solvent. But the band works so much at avoiding novelty, it almost becomes just that, resting so hard on tradition, it'd fall over with one push. Too often, the album comes off like a museum exhibit, the Grand Ole Opry under glass.
It's not until near the end of the disc that Eleven Hundred Springs comes into its own, breaking free of Hank Williams ("Gone Crazy Blues," and somewhere a copyright lawyer is filing an injunction) and all of its other influences. "Queen of Canton Street" is the best song Hillyer's ever written, a love song to Carrol Collyer's now-defunct honky-tonk Naomi's that's as heartfelt as it would be if he were singing about a real woman. "I was only 17, singin' songs on your back porch," Hillyer sings. "And though I may have been a little green, you lit the fire and I took the torch." It's a beautiful song, and the only one on Welcome to... that sounds like it's coming out of Hillyer's mouth. It may have taken a while, but Matt Hillyer finally seems to have found his own voice. Maybe next time, he'll use it.
Eleven Hundred Springs performs March 19 at the Barley House.