Down-Home Brew

Eleven Hundred Springs doesn't look like your average country band. 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, 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 other gigs that keep them on stage 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 latest album, A Straighter Line.

"This happens every time we step on stage / 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, 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 --single-monikered drummer Bruce, guitarist Chris Claridy, bassist Steve Berg and pedal steel-banjo-piano player Aaron Wynne -- are preaching, that they're 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 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 they don't waste much time thinking about it.

Not that they have much time for the philosophy trip anyway, since their schedule keeps them so busy. Bruce 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 goes beyond the usual stops like Austin, Houston and San Antonio. They play everywhere, even weddings; the group was the house band at B.J. Thomas's 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. 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 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 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 three 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, audience members have been known to get on stage 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 on stage, man," Hillyer laughs, referring to a gig in San Angelo. "Yelling at her, man."

"You know how sometimes, at some of the smaller bars, people get up on stage 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 a break 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. 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, 'Okay, 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."

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Zac Crain