For a couple of decades now, Eleven Hundred Springs has been one of greatest country bands in North Texas, if not the absolute best, that is. Winners of a fair share of Dallas Observer Music Awards through the years, the Matt Hillyer-led honky-tonk crew has yet another album, its ninth offering, ready to release. Like the records before it, Here ’Tis is an expertly brewed pitcher of Telecaster twang and fiddlin’ swing.
It might be too easy to take such a reliably stellar band for granted. They play often enough around this neck of the woods (like in their upcoming Jan. 18 show at the Granada Theater), it’s hard to not feel as though Eleven Hundred will always be there waiting for us when we need them for a jitterbugging night out or a day-drinking binge on the back patio. That much may be true, seeing as how it’s impossible to ever see Hillyer say goodbye to his long-revered band, but that doesn’t mean everything’s the same-old, same-old for Eleven Hundred Springs.
This album marks the second record with a revamped lineup. Before releasing 2018’s The Finer Things in Life, Chad Rueffer (guitar, vocals), Ray Austin (pedal steel) and Christian Dorn (drums) were welcomed in after a time performing as Hillyer’s band for the occasional solo side project show. To highlight the ability of the still fresh lineup to give new life to the group’s sound, Rueffer, who has led local country band The Insiders as well as ’90s Deep Ellum rock greats Spot, sings lead on “All Jokes Aside,” arguably the album’s best track. Hearing a booming barroom bellow instead of Hillyer’s higher, more lonesome tone is still a bit of a shock — although a pleasant one.
“Yeah, Chad singing lead on some songs may make some of our longtime followers scratch their heads, I guess,” Hillyer says. “But in 2017, I knew I wanted to keep Eleven Hundred Springs going and I was having so much fun with my solo band, so I decided to sort of fold the two together. The prospect of adding Chad’s voice and sensibilities into our talent pool was something I was really digging.”
For Hillyer, having a new songwriter in the band offered a bit of relief as much as it was also the proverbial shot in the arm. “I would say 90% of the material from the last couple of records is from when Chad and I sat down to woodshed the tunes together, which is great since I’ve typically carried the songwriting workload for the band, not that I’m complaining in any way, but it’s cool to simply have a new voice in the creative process,” Hillyer adds.
Something that hasn’t changed with the group is the unwavering dedication to making albums full of great songs. In the streaming era, it’s understandable for any band to perhaps shift its methodology of releasing new music in to the marketplace. But for Hillyer, staying true to a combination of killer live shows and high-quality, well-thought-out records is a formula he’s comfortable with.
“Making an album is a pretty large endeavor,” he says. “And not to be a Debbie Downer about it, but when you talk about how people listen to music these days, you know that people aren’t really spending money on actual albums, so the question for us becomes, ‘Why should we record an album?’ We’ve gone back and forth on this question, but the truth of the matter is, I do believe, for the most part, that people care about a collection of songs. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll realize I’m just tied to an old, out-of-date format.”
The adherence to the traditional full album format isn’t merely the preference of a grizzled industry veteran, but a reflection of the passion that Hillyer has as a music fan as much as anything else. When it’s done best, the album is a genuine timestamp of where an artist was at a given moment in time, just as much a document for listeners to fully embrace the artist marking a certain point.
"(T)he truth of the matter is, I do believe, for the most part, that people care about a collection of songs." — Matt Hillyer
“I think every song on an album matters,” he says. “This may sound corny, but we’re supposed to take people on a sort of auditory journey. And why should fans give a damn about a new album if we don’t give them our best, something they can really sink their teeth into. That definitely still matters.”
That type of care given to what fans of Eleven Hundred Springs will respond to is unquestionably a driving force in the fact the group is still around, packing rooms across the state, as it moves into its third decade of existence. Hillyer admits that life as an independent honky-tonk band can sometimes be an uncertain and even discouraging one, but every night he hits the stage, he’s reminded of why he still does it, why his band still matters.
“I’m blown away by the people who still come to see us play,” he says. “It’s easy to sometimes feel like we’re just sort of hovering around, hoping things work out, but I know there are people out there who connect some of the biggest moments of their lives to our music and to our shows. That’s always so encouraging, and it’s never not cool.”