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Texas Quint Takes a Cue From Bakersfield Two

November 17, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard readily comes to mind while enjoying the tradition-steeped honky-tonk of Eleven Hundred Springs.

But despite similarities in style, this band--which continues a three-date Orange County swing tonight at Abilene Rose in Fountain Valley and Saturday night at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim--features five proud Texans.

The band, in fact, is named after a Texas town. Pearl beer used to boast on its cans: "Brewed in Eleven Hundred Springs, Texas." It was the beer that brought the name to the band's attention.

Even so, if you're still thinking that Bakersfield--the birthplace of West Coast honky-tonk--might offer more fertile soil for Eleven Hundred Springs, Matt Hillyer, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, suggests otherwise.

"From Lefty Frizzell to Doug Sahm to Robert Earl Keen to ZZ Top, defining 'Texas music' requires quite a broad interpretation," he said recently from a pay phone while en route to a gig in Lubbock, Texas. "A lot of people seem to forget how much music has sprouted from here. Even though they're getting the most attention lately, it's not just alt-country and Americana.

"Texas is a big state," he said. "The landscape is so broad and every town has its own personality. There's so much to draw from, and a lot of that diversity is represented by all these different musicians."

The Dallas born-and-based Hillyer--who grew up listening to a variety of music, from the blues, rockabilly and pop (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles) to pure honky-tonk (Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens) to Western swing (Bob Wills, Asleep at the Wheel)--longed to subtly integrate this melting pot of styles when he and bassist Steve Berg co-founded Eleven Hundred Springs early in 1998.

Part of a rockabilly act called the Lone Star Trio at the time, Hillyer and Berg initially formed Eleven Hundred Springs as a side project 'to fill nights we had off with free burgers, beer and lots of pure country music." What began casually as a weekly residence at Adair's Saloon in Dallas became a permanent fixture because, according to Hillyer, "this felt too right."

The band, which also features drummer Bruce Alford, lead guitarist Chris Claridy and pedal steel guitarist Aaron Wynne, has wasted little time self-releasing three albums--all within 13 months: "Welcome to Eleven Hundred Springs" (March 1999), "Live at Adair's" (November 1999) and "No Stranger to the Blues" (April 2000).

Though standard fare--fictional tales of romantic entanglements, rowdy juke joints and endless nights on the road--dominates the band's subject matter, lyricist Hillyer, 25, does expand his reach with 'Picture Perfect Life," a harrowing song that closes "No Stranger to the Blues." Inspired by the grisly 1998 murder of his seventh-grade history teacher--she was stabbed and strangled by her husband in front of their children--the song helped Hillyer cope with the tragedy.

"Mary [Richardson] was not only my teacher, she was once a student of my mom's," he said. "So we all knew each other. There was a kinship there.

"At first, I thought her death was a little too close to home for me to write a song about. Plus, I didn't want her family hearing it and feeling weird, although I'm glad to know now that they appreciated it. But I went ahead because people today are suffering these violent deaths, and something burning inside me had to get out. It's like Billy Joe Shaver once told me: 'Songwriting is the cheapest darn therapy there is.' "

Eleven Hundred Springs' last appearance here in Orange County--at the 1998 Hootenanny at Oak Canyon Ranch in Irvine--found the band members backing the legendary Bo Diddley, a cantankerous sort known for his unpredictability. So when asked about the experience, it wasn't surprising that Hillyer shared mixed feelings.

"As soon as [co-organizer] Linda [Jemison] asked us to do it, we learned and practiced all his classic stuff," he recalled. "Well, when we get to the gig, we're waiting around for Bo to show up, and when he finally does, he says to us, 'Boys, we ain't gonna play none of that.' All he was worried about was our drummer getting the beat right.

"It was pretty bizarre. . . . We played the set pretty much on the fly. He was actually pretty cool, though. He let us take some pictures with him afterward, and you've got to admit, just to hang out for a few minutes with Bo Diddley is priceless."

It seems peculiar to some that Eleven Hundred Springs--a group of twentysomethings--is so enamored with traditional country music. But the truth is, it's not that unusual.

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