To many a country music fan from North Texas, Matt Hillyer is a tried-and-true honky-tonk bandleader. The inked-up lead singer of Eleven Hundred Springs, now nearing his 40s and missing the long ponytail that snaked out from under his cowboy hat a decade ago, is ready to assume a new role: solo artist.
With a sack full of Dallas Observer Music Awards to their name, Eleven Hundred Springs have been the king of the country hill in North Texas for many years now. Even as he has kept busy with the seemingly constant tour and recording schedule of the Springs, Hillyer's decision to branch out for a bit of artistic diversion isn't new by any stretch. In the past year or so, his rockabilly flavored Matt the Cat Trio have filmed a video and played many gigs that are a far cry from the sawdust-shuffling balladry his fans are accustomed to hearing from him. But the songs on the new If These Old Bones Could Talk are different still from his work with either project, regardless of some surface-level similarities.
"I've never really tried to reinvent the wheel with my music," Hillyer says of his latest change of direction. Instead, releasing these songs under his own name was a means to give them the proper chance to flourish. "I'm not really trying to throw any curve balls," he says. "To me it always boils down to the material. I know there are songs on this album that I would not have put on an Eleven Hundred Springs album. Even the songs that would fit on an Eleven Hundred Springs album are, for the most part, rooted in very personal places."
Of course, Hillyer's roots with the Springs run deep as well. Almost his entire adult life has been spent with the band. His music career began in earnest in 1993, when he was still a senior in high school. At the time, his Lone Star Trio started making waves in local bars like the gone-but-not-forgotten Three Teardrops Tavern. Five years later, Eleven Hundred Springs formed and it wasn't long before the band began to hit its stride.
Drawing heavily from the western swing swagger of Texas as well as the electrified Bakersfield country style that Buck Owens and Merle Haggard turned the world on to, Hillyer and crew became a dependably popular live draw here in Dallas. The group has long been sought-after across the state, where influential country and Americana radio stations in Austin and New Braunfels have spun Springs favorites regularly. But then that's the Springs' territory.
"When the collection of these songs started to really come together it became apparent to me that the majority of them felt like something I was trying to say independent of a group." Thus there was no magic formula to the decision: "It just felt like the right time to do this."
Far from blowing up the band that he's made his name with -- Hillyer is still committed to the Springs -- he is playing a long game. He's determined to make music for a living until his dying day, and diversifying his artistic portfolio is a shrewd way for him to do that. More than merely going rogue, Hillyer is going solo so that he can always be happy and productive, regardless of which act he's leading at any given time.
"Songwriting to me is therapeutic," he says. "Whether I'm making up a piece of fiction in an effort to escape my troubles or trying my best to be honest and look my troubles in the face, it serves as therapy. With these songs it was the latter."
Recorded last year in Dripping Springs with noted producer Lloyd Maines at the helm, If These Old Bones Could Talk has undergone a deliberately slow, measured maturation process. Because this album isn't representative of a restless artist churning out aimless busy work, Hillyer wanted to make sure it's a complete work worthy of introducing a new phase to his career that will likely outlast his other outlets. With a wider scope of textures and a deeper well of emotion from which he drew from, the stellar new record has certainly been worth the wait.
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Hillyer began feeling the need to create a different type of country music, one that said something different as much as it might sound a bit different from what he's offered in the past. It's not that the self-proclaimed "long-haired, tattooed hippie freak" was ready to tweak some synth knobs or produce some hip-hop beats, mind you, but his desire to test the boundaries of country music can be credited in part to his upbringing. His parents raised him on a healthy variety of music, ranging from Willie Nelson and Ornette Coleman to the Beatles and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Given Hillyer's songwriting chops, it's not surprising that his mother is quite the wordsmith as well. "I started writing songs shortly after I picked up a guitar," he says. "My mother is a poet, and she told me, 'You can learn to play guitar. You can learn to sing. If you practice enough, you can probably be pretty good too. But if you want to get anywhere you need to write your own songs.'"
What ultimately drove Hillyer to release Old Bones was, in part, his grandmother. "I was very close with my grandmother. She was always pushing me to do it. She loved Eleven Hundred Springs, but she really wanted me to make something with my name on it," Hillyer recalls.
"I think the place the songs were coming from were of a more personal nature," he adds. "As they started to materialize, it occurred to me that these songs might be the ones to put my name out front on."