Thank God it's Monday

Take me home country roads: Eleven Hundred Springs is Steve Berg, Jason Garner, Matt Hillyer, and Bruce Alford.
Heather Ciceran

An explosion of graffiti covers the walls and ceiling of the room, Lone Star beer flows from the bar like sweat on a thick August night, and the sharp voice of a fiddle cuts down the long, narrow concrete floor. Neon beer signs lend a mellow, buzzing backdrop to a midnight crowd no social anthropologist could categorize. A huddle of tattooed rockabillies over here, near a gaggle of Park Cities blondes. A herd of cowboys lean their Wranglers against the bar, Stetsons shadowing their eyes, their boots caked with the manure of a weekend roundup. Twenty feet from the stage, some middle-aged suits punch the air with their fists, whooping along with the band. "Raise hell! Drink beer! That's all there is to do around here," the room bellows, heaving in a united determination to absorb all that generous sound flowing from the stage and all the beer from behind the bar.

The band is to blame for such a gloriously disparate crowd. Eleven Hundred Springs has stumbled into the unlikely role of Deep Ellum saviors, delivering the purest country this city could hope for, playing songs as though the music might just redeem downtown's rotting, callous soul. On this night at Adair's -- hell, every Monday night at the long-standing honky tonk -- tight little masses descend to witness the baptism of not only a weeknight but the whole area. For a few hours every week, Eleven Hundred Springs rechristens Commerce in the name of the father (Johnny Cash), the son (George Jones), and the Holy Spirit (Hank Williams). Amen.

"I have no problem saying we're straight-up country," says Matt Hillyer, the band's frontman and songwriter. Three of the four Eleven Hundred Springs members are scarfing down lunch at an Italian restaurant while they give the second substantial interview about the band's 18-month existence. One thing is clear: They feel they've finally built a machine that works as well for them as it does for their swelling audience. "These wheels are rolling a lot easier than with other projects I've done," Hillyer says.

Hillyer is a local guitar hero in the genuine sense, a guy who stepped up to the club-circuit plate seven years ago at the ripe old age of 17, was labeled "prodigy" by a slobbering music press, and has honed his chops ever since. With time and at least four bands behind him (including Lone Star Trio and Strap), Hillyer has finally grown into his talent the way a boy grows into his feet: slowly but surely, and so naturally we didn't quite notice. Essentially, he's moved from restless kid attempting a greener musical aggression to a wiser, relaxed artist who's found his muse. "I write these songs, and now I'm realizing how fun this can be," Hillyer says. "We play stuff that's fun to write, fun to go see, fun to listen to." That he's matched the maturity of his music with more instinctive, dead-on playing is no surprise. Hillyer's guitar packs all the roar and whisper of a hallowed veteran.

Eleven Hundred Springs' evenhanded recipe of original music and traditional country songs is not only the result of the band members' collective focus but of their experience performing together. "Three of us have been playing for years, and we've learned what's important in a band, how to make decisions," says Steve Berg, Eleven Hundred's bassist and Hillyer's bandmate throughout the decade. "We know our strengths, we know how to address problems and take care of them, and we like each other. It frees us up to be serious about this."

It didn't start that way. "We were all working on other projects at first," says drummer Bruce Alford, ex of Vibrolux. "I was in Birch County, and Strap was still going. This was just something we did for fun once a week. I'd never played country before in my life and thought it might be interesting." Eleven Hundred Springs took the Monday-night slot at Adair's back in December 1997. By the following month, the lineup solidified: Hillyer at the helm, Berg on bass, and the bespectacled newcomer Jason Garner on fiddle. ("We found him through friends," Hillyer says. "He'd never played in a band before.") Steady rock drummer Alford rounded out the group on a pared-down trap kit.

The curious regulars watched the band evolve. It tried out new material and pulled out old gems, but it would be half a year before the band's members would begin to see the project with fresh eyes, watching it grow from a novelty to a recording project to a creative wellspring.

"With as much bullshit as the three of us have had to deal with in other circuits, as hard as we've worked, this time everything made a lot of sense," Hillyer says. "Things have just fallen into place." The band discussed the project's potential while self-recording some raw songs last summer. "That's when me and Steve realized how far this might go," Alford says. "From that point on, it became our main thing."  

The sales of that cassette EP at shows allowed the band to record the full-length Welcome to Eleven Hundred Springs last winter, a project engineered by Reed Easterwood. Its 11 originals (plus one Joe Williams cover) sound as though they're carved from a canon of classics: a slice of Buck Owens here, a ladle of Willie Nelson there, and don't forget the Ernest Tubb. It shows the kind of versatility -- swing, bluegrass, barrelhouse, and ballad -- that most country acts couldn't master playing all covers, let alone original material.

The record works fine as an introduction to the band; Hillyer's voice is as crisp and immediate as the twang of his cut-through-the-crap Telecaster, and Garner's fiddle is as mean and melodic as a soul for sale at the crossroads. The album lacks the same thing so many other studio ventures do: the band's undeniable live-show power, the game-breaking ace in Eleven Hundred Springs' deck. While a spin of the disc in a car stereo might give you a taste of the band's talent and Hillyer's potential as a songwriter, it's the live show that illuminates the band's charisma. The group hinges most of its self-discovery on these past 18 months of playing live. "We've already played about 115 shows this year alone," Alford says. "Which is a lot of work, and the best thing for us."

Eleven Hundred Springs' impressive live presence makes the recent soundboard recording of one of its shows at Adair's -- which will be released this fall, just as the band wraps up its Monday-night gigs to hit the road -- a logical step in the band's growth. If the live record does the band justice, then all those who can't stomach a Monday night out will get a chance to hear what the buzz is about. The regulars, on the other hand, can take home a permanent slice of the adrenaline. And there are enough regulars: On the night of the recording, the club was so packed with greasers and swing kids and cowboys and alterna-rockers, it took 10 minutes to wade from the door to the bar.

The band likes its diverse crowd, insisting they themselves look a bit swarthy and delinquent compared with their pure country counterparts. When up against the color-block shirts and homogenized conservatism of the Garth Brooks contingent, they may be right. "We book these shows out of town at country bars, and then we show up and the club owners look at us like we're crazy, like we're lying about playing real country," Berg says. His forearms, like those of his bandmates, are covered with tattoos. "Then we start playing, and they love it and ask us back."

But toss in Alford's nose ring, Hillyer's long hair snaking halfway down his back, and Garner's grad-student demeanor, and suddenly the band seems right at home in downtown Dallas. This paradox is proof of country music's ever-diversifying tentacles. Indie-rock fans have been listening to Johnny Cash all along -- even if Cash's contemporaries are just now starting to realize that audiophiles always have room for songs about love gone wrong and lone riders. The band members' appearances don't phase the crowd at Adair's any more than they would an audience at Trees, although the group insists things don't go well for them in a true rock environment. "We've played Curtain Club and Trees," Alford says. "It was pointless."

"Maybe not so much pointless as just silly, especially after playing Adair's and Billy Bob's and the [Gypsy] Tea Room," Hillyer says. "Thing is, in rock clubs you're just getting warmed up and then you're done. We like to play a good long while. Most country clubs will let you play at least an hour and a half, even when there are other bands."

At one-set shows, Eleven Hundred plays all originals, but at Adair's, the band plays three sets, spanning a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. slot that not only suits the atmospheric momentum of heartbreak tunes and canned beer but also allows the band to explore its terrain more fully. "There are a gazillion old country tunes I'd like to play," Hillyer says. "We try to pick some obscure ones, just so that it might be all new to the younger people in the crowd. But I've written new songs, and we hope to do another record this winter."

Back at Adair's the following Monday, a lingering, glassy-eyed audience hangs on to every note of the ballad "Queen of Canton Street," a song Hillyer wrote about his earlier days playing Deep Ellum's other, long-closed honky tonk, Naomi's. "I was only 17, singin' songs on your back porch," he sings. "And though I may have been a little green, you lit the fire and I took the torch." Hillyer has come a long way since 1992, only to end up almost at the beginning again. And from the sound of things, maybe that's right where he belongs.

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