By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It shouldn't exactly be a surprise at this point. Tales of drinking beers and smoking drugs and getting through life (if not flat-out reveling in it), all set to a score of classic, '50s-inspired rock 'n' roll riffs and adorned with fiddle and pedal steel flourishes?
On an Eleven Hundred Springs album?
You don't say.
No, wait, of course you do. Because, really, at this point—10 years, six studio releases and one live album into the powerhouse Dallas country outfit's career—listeners know quite well what to expect from Eleven Hundred Springs: something to dance to, something to get a little nostalgic to, something to enjoy without too much thought, something to get lost in. It's all there on the band's latest (and remarkably enjoyable) full-length, This Crazy Life, released just this week by Smith Music Group.
Yep, the formula's long been in place for Eleven Hundred Springs' songbook, something the band's ever-congenial frontman Matt Hillyer considers a bit of a blessing and a curse.
"At a certain point, you just have to respect your audience," he offers during a recent phone call, "even when there are days when you want to try something different. But I know our audience, and I respect them, and I know what they want."
Hell, it's what Hillyer wants too. A little bit of respite, that's all. Maybe some booze. Or some pot if you've got any lying around. Just something to take the edge off.
Consider it just part of his easygoing personality, which is evident in pretty much everything he does: On stage, it's clear in the nonchalance with which he and his band perform their not-as-easy-as-they-make-it-look tunes, and in the banter they share with their audiences; off stage, it's seen in his quick wit and candor. Like when he's asked if he ever tires of penning songs about drinking beers and smoking joints: "Well, I certainly know enough about it," he says with a hearty laugh. "It's not like I'm bullshitting anybody."
And, lucky guy, he's been able to make a living out of this straight-shooting style for years now—even if, recently, it's caused a little trouble with his 16-year-old nephew.
Shares Hillyer: "It gets a little weird when your nephew gives you a call, wondering about a certain song and you're just like, 'Oh, man, do I have to do this? Do I have to have this conversation?'"
In many ways, that awkward scenario stands as the theme of This Crazy Life—a sort of beleaguered, bewildered, half-hearted introspection, if you will. Which makes sense: After some 20 years of giving life as a musician a go and averaging about 200 shows a year for the past decade, Hillyer's now trying to balance that life with his growing family one. And it is growing: Since the release of 2008's Country Jam, Hillyer's added a second child to his fast-expanding family.
"There's just a back-and-forth between me being this family guy and this rock 'n' roll dude," Hillyer says.
That much is evident in his latest crop of songs. Take, for example, "Show Me the Money (or I'll Show You the Door)," This Crazy Life's fourth track. Sings Hillyer over a muscle-bound bass line at the song's start: "I've got holes in my wall, I've got a leak in my roof/I've got a great big stack of bills if you really need some proof/That the times are tough and it's giving me the blues/But stick around a little more for a little more bad news." He carries through on that promise too, offering up a laundry list of the suburban dad doldrums as the song continues. (That song's inspired by a true story: To accommodate his growing household, Hillyer hired a contractor to remodel his house. Only, things weren't working out as well as he'd hoped. "It was just one of those times where the contractor wouldn't show up—or maybe you just wish that he didn't," Hillyer says.)
But Hillyer still handles the real world just as one would expect. On "Get Through the Day," he shares his method: "I step outside and I smoke another bowl/Step back inside and I drink a little more/And my mind starts moving just a little bit slower/And everything seems OK." The song even shares his reasoning behind doing as much: "I might be known for getting drunk and stoned," Hillyer croons in his pleasingly soft, high pitch, "but I never have hurt no one."
It ain't exactly Shakespeare, but Hillyer's not too concerned about that, either.
"There's a lot of people out there who won't write songs because they're afraid to write a bad one," he says. "There's a discipline to it, though. You gotta keep working at it, making music for music's sake."
And, eventually, Hillyer says, you'll get it right.
"You've gotta just not think about stuff," he says. "If you start getting tired of your own voice, get over it. I mean, there are things about anything you do for a living that gets old. But if I start complaining, I might as well stop."
And, let's be clear here: On This Crazy Life, Eleven Hundred Springs is hardly complaining. Rather, Hillyer and his bandmates are just observing the human experience—and laughing it off with a shrug and a smirk.
Or, as Hillyer puts it better in the chorus of the album's down-home, lead-off, titular track, "Until then," he sings, after sharing the things he hopes his sunset years will bring, "it's this crazy life instead."