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.