"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.