Walk the Line

Eleven Hundred Springs doesn't look like your average country band. Obviously. Clearly. They've all spent plenty of time in tattoo parlors, and not just for the pleasant conversation. A couple of them have long hair. In a rock club, they'd blend in; they'd be camouflaged. But they're five sore thumbs at the honky-tonks they play in Lubbock and Amarillo and San Angelo, not to mention the weddings and private parties and wherever else that keeps them onstage around 20 nights a month. They've heard the comments so often, there's even a song about it--"Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks"--on their new album, A Straighter Line.

"This happens every time we step onstage/Lord, they look at us like we have lost our minds/Yeah, but then we go and break into that 'San Antonio Rose'/And they can't believe they're having a good time," Matt Hillyer sings, in a voice that's just a little deeper than the high twang with which he speaks. "And every time we hit a truck stop on the road/They say, 'You boys, you must be in a band'/'What kind of music do you play?' and we say, 'Country'/And there's a look like they don't understand/They call us long-haired, tattooed hippie freaks."

Of course, Eleven Hundred Springs doesn't sound like your average country band either; they're much better. Playing a style of music that's "been going through an identity crisis since it began, since Hank Williams," as Hillyer says, they keep it simple and pure, good songs played by a good band. They don't doll themselves up in Nudie suits or resort to cheap don't-mess-with-Texas jingoism designed to make the Tri Delts hoot and holler. (Pat Green, we're looking in your direction.) They're a country band because they are, not because they're forcing themselves to be. If it sounds like Eleven Hundred Springs is looking backward on its four albums--1999's Welcome to Eleven Hundred Springs and Live at Adair's, 2000's No Stranger to the Blues and the just-released A Straighter Line--it's only because Nashville gave up on country music years ago, no matter what the Chamber of Commerce says.

"Does anyone remember Johnny Paycheck?/Or Willie, Waylon and the late and great Doug Sahm?" Hillyer asks later in "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks," naming just a few of the band's idols. "Hey, a lot of them clean-cut boys they got in Nashville/Don't know a damn thing about where we're coming from." If it sounds like Hillyer and the band--drummer Bruce Alford, guitarist Chris Claridy, bassist Steve Berg and pedal steel-banjo-piano player Aaron Wynne--are preaching, that they are pounding the pulpit in an attempt to get those clean-cut boys in Nashville to change their ways, they aren't. Not really. They're just explaining themselves and their music: why a bunch of long-haired, tattooed hippie freaks play decades-old music and how they make it sound as new and fresh as tomorrow morning. Why? Easy, because they all genuinely love it. How? Who knows or cares. They just do, and don't waste much time thinking about it.

The band is at Hillyer's house in North Dallas, listening to Buck Owens and jazz records, talking about Doug Sahm records on eBay, washing down a Mexican food dinner with a few bottles of Lone Star. It's a setting that's not all that different from when the group recorded A Straighter Line at South of Brown Studios in Waxahachie, the studio Claridy has set up at his house. The disc--mostly acoustic, save for Wynne's pedal steel--was an attempt, as the note from the band on the back cover says, "to capture the feel of five guys sitting in a room playing when there just happened to be microphones on." And other than the Dobro T-Roy Miller adds to "It Don't Mean a Thing to You" and "See You in the Next Life," and Reggie Rueffer's fiddle on "Sad and Lonesome Song" and "Bird on a Wire," it is just the five of them, picking and grinning, playing the kind of songs that sound right at home among Willie, Waylon and the boys.

They're grinning, in part, because it's the first time all five of them have been on one record together. In fact, the group's previous three CDs had different lineups. But this one, they all agree, is the strongest. The current lineup of the band has been together since September, when Wynne joined Eleven Hundred Springs full time. They were eager to get into the studio to get it all on tape, and now they're ready to do a real record, one that shows off what Eleven Hundred Springs can do. Not that A Straighter Line isn't representative of their songs and their sound. It's just a different record, mainly because it finds the band doing something it never--or at least, rarely--does.

Which is? Playing acoustic. The strange thing is, even though A Straighter Line is predominantly acoustic, the first time Eleven Hundred Springs will really play a full-on acoustic set is August 25 at the CD release party for the disc at AllGood Café. It's just too much of a hassle, they say, and not enough clubs can accommodate the stand-up bass Berg uses for acoustic numbers. "It's like you need more gear to play acoustic," Berg says. Now it's worth it, especially since they've always wanted to make a record like A Straighter Line.