Collyers of the wild
As Matt Hillyer and Steve Berg welcome their guest into the living room-cum-rehearsal space in which Lone Star Trio and the Collyers practice and hang out, they bring out three cans of Lone Star beer. The gesture could not be more welcome, or appropriate: As two-thirds of Lone Star Trio--Hillyer as guitarist and singer, Berg as upright bassist--these young men have embraced a sound that defines Texas as much as any beer named after the place. It's an amalgam of rock and roll, rockabilly, country, blues, and jazz--sounds indispensable to the definition of the state, inextricably linked with its history.
For the past two years, Lone Star Trio has served as one of the genuine ambassadors-in-residence of that bastard creation known as "Texas music," Young Turks whose music links them with a rockabilly past (Ronnie Dawson) and a hybrid future (Reverend Horton Heat). Hillyer, not long out of high school (at the private Episcopal School of Dallas, no less), is revered by some as a revisionist, regarded by more as a revivalist, and both parties would be right. He's a kid who calls himself "Matt the Cat" and sings about peep show babies and hot rockin' mamas, his upper torso slowly disappearing underneath a blanket of tattoos, his voice slowly emerging from the shouting of others.
But in the past three months, as Lone Star Trio glances at its rock and roll compass and tries to figure out in which direction the arrow's pointing (rock? punk? rockabilly?), Hillyer and Berg have gone in search of their roots--seeking that truly homegrown sound, those songs Texans dream about when they sleep.
They call their side project the Collyers, and they have brought with them the likes of Richie Vasquez (formerly of the now-former Cartwrights) on snare drum, Todd Deatharage on lead guitar, and Dan Phillips on steel guitar. The band, which is most easily described as the country alter-ego of Lone Star Trio, is probably the best kept secret in town at the moment--mainly because they only play weeknights at the off-the-beaten-path Muddy Waters and, perhaps, because their sets include only covers of country classics and obscurities.
"This is something we wanted to do for a while," Hillyer says. "The Lone Star Trio is becoming more and more a rock and roll band, so we wanted to do something that is closer to our roots, like country and western swing and some more traditional stuff because these are our roots as musicians. Also this is a way for us to make some extra money as musicians by playing on weeknights. You don't want to play yourself out as the Lone Star Trio every night of the week because that kinda kills things."
As Hillyer speaks in his high North Dallas twang, he constantly readjusts his fedora, which recently has become his signature hat on stage. He speaks slowly, almost nervously, as if his passion for music might start his mouth running to many different directions, much like his musical endeavors. He chuckles when he uses the word "jamming"--likely the cheesiest clich in rock lingo--when he describes how The Collyers started (that is, by accident). Then again, so many bands started that way--through an instant chemistry between like-minded musicians, not through months of preparation and calculation.
"One day we were fooling around--me, Todd, and Steve," Hillyer says. "By the end of the day, we had booked ourselves a couple of gigs. You know, you show up at a gig and play a few songs all of us in a band know anyway. So we had our first show at Naomi's and it was a 'name the band' type of thing. Everyone who came would write down names and whoever got one chosen won a case of beer. I think it was Donny Ray Ford [lead singer and bassist for Liberty Valance] who wrote down The Collyers.
"It makes sense because that's the last name of the owner of Naomi's [Carrol Collyer], and we like to play there anyway. It's kinda funny, it's something like 'The Waltons.'"
The Collyers is the latest addition to a line of local bands that has reclaimed country music for the hip, the knowledgeable, and the purists. In the past decade, now-defunct bands like Lost Highway, Killbilly, and Donny Ray Ford and the Honkytonkers, and more recent additions to the scene like Liberty Valance, the Cartwrights, Cowboys and Indians, even the Old 97's and Tex Edwards and the Swingin' Cornflake Killers have revived traditional Texas music; they are members of the so-called "Honky Tonk Underground," inheritors to a throne long abandoned in the mad rush for the pop-country dollar.
Where just a few years ago the mere mention of the word "country" would bring frowns of abhorrence to the faces of the young and trendy, these local bands have managed to attract crowds that are equal parts music lovers and trend-hoppers. In some cases, they are as rock as they are country (like Liberty Valance, influenced as much by the Werewolves--Dallas' Rolling Stones of the mid-'70s as by George Jones) or as jazz as they are country (Cowboys and Indians, the Texas Playboys fronted by Louis Jordan); but they are all authentic from a close distance, men (and young girls if you include LeeAnn Rhimes) who guzzle tradition from a broken bottle.
"You talk to a lot of people about country music and they go, 'Aaargh, I don't like that stuff,'" Hillyer says. "That's because they think country is Garth Brooks. But if they're given half a chance they may actually dig it...
"I always thought that thing they call 'Young Country' is a contradiction in terms. I don't think this is really country. What country is all about was what Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb did--it's about the working man. I think most country music today has no roots. The only roots that it has is basically some dude with a Southern accent. If you listen to the music it's almost rock and roll and R&B. Some of it is just so bad."
"I believe there's good country music made these days but not a lot of that is offered [to the public]," Berg interjects. "This thing today is like a mockery of country music."
The Collyers' bass player goes on to say how he grew up in a house filled with the sounds of the country music his dad used to listen to. He dismisses new country-pop by singing the praises of Johnny Horton and Buck Owens, two artists whose songs are frequent visitors to the Collyers' set lists. Hillyer's own love for country started early, when he discovered Hank Williams.
"Hank Williams is the greatest," he insists. "He wrote about 150 songs, and all of them are good. I can listen to Hank almost every day, over and over again. Sometimes I say to myself, 'Shouldn't I get tired of listening to this shit all the time?' But no, man, I can listen to Hank Williams every day."
Williams' material makes up only a small part of the Collyers' shows. The band's set lists dig deep into country's treasure trove, including such gems as Buck Owens' "Hello Trouble," Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" or "Okie from Muskogee," "Long Black Veil" by Johnny Cash, Williams' "Wedding Bells" and "Long Gone Daddy," and "One Woman Man" by Johnny Horton. To hear them perform such songs--to listen to young men breathe new life into such creaky masterpieces of despair and gloom and loneliness, to listen as they imbue these pieces of neglected poetry with fresh and reckless enthusiasm--is to realize that there are no such things as "genres."
Labels like rock, blues, and swing are unnecessary because they all lead in the same direction; the scenery's the same, only the method of transportation differs. This is not just good country music--it's good American music, as pure as the universal themes these songs embrace.
When the band takes the stage at Muddy Waters--where Hillyer trades in his fedora for a cowboy hat--the Collyers fill the space with (mostly forgotten) songs about heartache, drinking, sinning, cheating, loving, and breaking up. Most of these songs are 30 or 40 years old, but as the words come from Hillyer's lips, as the rhythm section swings, as the lead guitar rips through gritty riffs, and as the steel guitar adds the wistful ambiance, it all sounds as relevant as you want it to be. There is no smarmy nostalgia to the sound, only the influence of fondness, respect, and affection.
"Good music is timeless," Hillyer says. "Everybody can get into it as long as they're given the chance...I think there's a lot more breathing room in country music than a lot of people think. There's the singer-songwriter stuff that uses country, like Jerry Jeff Walker. There's honky-tonk music, and then there's country rock and the stuff that Liberty Valance does. There's a lot of different directions you can go.
"But you know," he continues as his eyes light up, "this is Texas-style music. It wouldn't be the same if it wasn't played in Texas. If you took it on tour outside of Texas, you're almost killing the spirit of it. You can't play country music unless, somehow, you have access to the country...This region has a lot of great country musicians who know its history and how it's done, but they don't get the recognition because country has gotten so bastardized and commercialized."
At this stage, the Collyers are quite content with being a bar band that makes money and "gets drunk for free on weeknights," but they are beginning to entertain the idea of recording an album of covers, perhaps even throwing in a couple of originals.
"The stuff that I write for Lone Star Trio is getting more and more left field, and that's the way I want it," Hillyer says. "But it would be cool to write a few songs that are totally traditional, old country style. I'm hoping to record something soon. And you know it's gonna be good because we feel so good about it anyway.
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