In the early '90s, Matt Hillyer and his band, Lone Star Trio, were packing venues with a rootsy sound about the same time that Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond were forming the Old 97's. Since 1998, Hillyer's fronted Eleven Hundred Springs, an old-school honky-tonk band that's released several top-notch albums, including the recently released Midway. Speaking from his home in Dallas and in anticipation of tonight's CD release show at Dan's Silverleaf, Hillyer spoke about the evolution of the music scene.
How long have you been a part of the Dallas music scene? Well, Eleven Hundred Springs started out in 1998. It was born out of other bands. Our bass player Steve and I founded the band. We got our start playing music in Dallas in 1993, pretty close to twenty years ago. I started gigging professionally when I was very young, probably around 19. I've been doing it ever since.
Your first band was Lone Star Trio, and that was about the same time that the Old 97's hit the scene. You share quite a bit of history with Rhett Miller. Back in the day, you could always tell it was a show featuring you and Rhett because the crowd was over 60% women. [Laughs] That was especially true at the Rhett Miller shows. Rhett and I knew each other before either of us were in a band. We would play the coffee houses and schools. We would see each other around before we started gigging out.
Where did you go to high school? I went to the Arts Magnet school in Dallas.
Since you first entered the scene, it's had its ups and downs. How have you seen it change? What's interesting is whenever I started coming around, Deep Ellum was just exploding. That was the '90s and Deep Ellum was as big as it ever got. I was just a kid, playing with Reverend Horton Heat every now and then. I had a couple of bands. I got to watch the scene blossom. It was unparalleled in a lot of ways.Those three streets [Commerce, Elm and Main] filled with clubs. You could go down there, park, you could find a whole lot of entertainment just walking around. We loved it down there and so many great bands and musicians were getting successful.
Then the area went through a steep decline. It's now just starting to come back. There were some problems with developers and the whole thing felt very calculated. It became an area where people didn't want to hang out. I remember walking outside after a Saturday night show at Adair's and I hadn't been in Deep Ellum in a while. There was a gnarly vibe. It wasn't the same fun thing. It felt more dangerous. Then things really started shutting down. But these things come in cycles. Back in the '30s, the area was thriving. And it will come back again. It's a neat spot, but it's got to be an organic thing. It's got to happen on its own.
What are your favorite places to play in the area? We don't get down there that much anymore. Our fan base is into country, but we've had a great time at LaGrange. Also, we do like the Double Wide. It has to be a special deal because it's a smaller room.
Lone Star Trio was a more rockabilly, roots-rock type of band. Do you think people were surprised to hear the hardcore country of Eleven Hundred Springs? I don't think so. There might have been a handful of people. Of course, we played more rock early on. Some people liked it and some people didn't. But folks who liked Lone Star Trio really appreciated the sound of Eleven Hundred Springs. We didn't calculate the idea of forming another band, going on the road and putting together a real schedule. People have really responded to it. We're still playing the same country covers we did when I was in Lone Star Trio. We have expanded our repertoire. People who knew us back then, they were not surprised.
How have you evolved as a songwriter? Well, I hope I have evolved for the better. I think that over the years I've embraced the honest messages of the songs. I just want to write good, three-minute country tunes. Hopefully, people can dance to them. I try to get some nice melodies and beautiful words into that format in the same ways guys I like did, people like Buck Owens and Willie Nelson.
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Real country music kind of came back with Dwight Yoakam in the '80s and it seemed to be returning to the honesty of Johnny Cash, but now you can watch the Country Music Awards and not hear a single note of real country music. Yes, I know, I hear you. The perspective I have on that is the people who turned me onto country music were folks like Cash and Merle Haggard. I didn't even like George Straight. But now, 20 years later, I like a lot of George Strait songs. Even if he doesn't write the songs, he finds good songwriters.The people who really turned me on were people who were not that popular then. As long as somebody has a true message to put out there and tries to set it to music, there will be a handful of folks that respond to it. Those are the people we have always been shooting for. I'd rather have a medium-sized crowd that really got where you are coming from than a huge crowd that could really care less.
One of the best songs off the band's newest album is "I'm an S.O.B. When I'm S-O-B-E-R." Is there a key to writing a funny song that still has a serious message? Sure, that song was pitched to me years ago. I don't think I am the kind of guy who can write what I like to call bumper sticker songs that are kind of just these funny slogans. But on these last couple of records, people have been throwing me these lines and, at first, I shook them off. But then I rethought it and figured someone could write a song with these lines and it doesn't mean these songs have to suck. They don't have to be cheesy and lame. You can have a sense of humor and still write a good song. There are people who make a mint writing songs like that.
Eleven Hundred Springs plays tonight, February 10, at Dan's Silverleaf.