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.

"When it originally crossed my mind," Berg says, "I was kinda thinking about recording--since Chris has a studio--just recording some covers and stuff, just for the hell of it. And then it kinda went from there. You know, thinking, well, if we're gonna record stuff, why record covers? Let's make some new songs."

"We had a whole bunch of songs that we'd written that we thought, well, we could put this on our next studio record, but nah, it might not go with the rest of this stuff," Hillyer adds. "Some songs that I've written that are on there that I wrote four or five years ago, that I played in different bands or something like that, I said, 'You know what, I always thought when I wrote it that it would be better as a country song.' It was the kind of thing where there were also some songs that we thought, OK, if we don't record this stuff this way, we're probably not gonna record it. They're good songs. They'd just fit better on something like this. Quite honestly, I think we're more pleased with the end result than we expected to be."

They had limited time as well, since their schedule keeps them so busy. It's a Tuesday evening as they sit in the back room of Hillyer's house, one of the few open dates on their calendar. Alford says he's not happy if Eleven Hundred Springs isn't booked Thursday through Saturday, at least, and most of the time, he gets his wish and then some. The group has worked out a touring circuit around Texas that doesn't just include the usual stops like Austin, Houston and San Antonio. They play everywhere, even weddings; the group was the house band at B.J. Thomas' youngest daughter's nuptials. A gig's a gig.

It's a circuit that's found them sharing stages with everyone from Willie Nelson to Reverend Horton Heat, as well as frat-boy fave Pat Green. "The first time we ever played with that dude was right when we started," Hillyer remembers. "And we were going, 'Man, this isn't going to work. They aren't going to like us.' But they know a good show when they see it. Some of them are cool, and some of them are not, you know what I mean? There's so much of that sort-of fraternity mentality that just doesn't go with what we do at all. But, at the same time, I couldn't tell you how many people that actually have come up to us and said, 'Oh, yeah, I saw you open for Pat Green. I went and got the CD the other day.' So every time you sit there and think, 'We just don't match up with all that,' then somebody will come along and say something like that."

"It seems the Pat Green audience, to me, is shifting, too," Claridy adds. "It's like they're not the same as they were two years ago. It was really college back then. I mean, he gets more airplay on bigger stations, so you get a more diverse crowd than you ever have."

When the audience is less diverse, that's when fun really starts. At the smaller clubs in, say, San Angelo for instance. That's when audience members get onstage without being asked, or jump up on a table and dance, occasionally breaking the no shoes-no shirt-no service rule. Just bringing up the sights they've seen in less-traveled corners of Texas starts a 15-minute discussion where words barely squeeze in between laughs.

"You guys just started yelling at that girl that got up onstage, man," Hillyer says, laughing, referring to their most recent gig in San Angelo. "Yelling at her, man."

"You know how sometimes, at some of the smaller bars, people get up onstage to ask for something?" Alford explains. "We opened up for Pat Green, and within four or five songs of the set it seemed like, she started to walk up the steps, and I was like, 'Get the hell out!' And Steve turns around and yells at her, too."

"Yelling at her, man, like right in her face," Hillyer adds.

"If you don't yell at 'em, man, they don't get off," Alford continues. "They go, 'Huh?' 'Hey, can you move?' 'What?' And then they come closer to understand you."

"She was right there," Hillyer says. "It's not like you were yelling at her five feet away. I mean, she was right in Steve's face, and he's just yelling at her face, you know? And she's just standing there like she doesn't speak English."

"Did she?" Wynne asks.

"She spoke wino," Berg says, nailing the punch line.

Berg and the rest of the band will have to get comfortable speaking wino, because they don't seem to be taking any time off from the road anytime soon. There's always a new record to promote, new songs to play, another gig somewhere. If they don't look like the kind of country band you expect, that's fine. And if they don't sound like it either, that's fine, too. As long as they sound like Eleven Hundred Springs, Hillyer and the band are happy.

"Guys like us, I don't think we're trying to sell it completely and totally traditional, like Dale Watson or the Derailers are," Hillyer says. "We love those guys, love to watch them and everything like that. Our influences are certainly a lot more traditional than a lot of the other stuff that's going on. But, on the other hand, we're not really selling it that way. We're somewhere in between. It's hard to even entertain the idea of anything you do musically being original. It's all already done. But in general, I hope that we're doing our own thing. We just get up there and play the songs that we write, do it the way that we think it sounds good.

"It's never been the kind of thing where we go, OK, this is kinda what we're going for. This is our deal. This is our niche. We're gonna dress up in suits, and we're gonna do this and that. Or we're gonna be the new outlaws. It's never like that. We just get up there, we do our thing and play our music, and that's it."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain