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OK, so it’s been almost one year to the day since Eleven Hundred Springs released “Bandwagon” on Palo Duro Records – their biggest label release to date. That seems like as good a time as any for a review that’s glaringly missing from these pages.
While Eleven Hundred Springs’ records have never really conveyed the sheer twangy exuberance of their live shows, “Bandwagon” successfully straddles the line between the hard electric country sound of the band on stage and the mellower acoustic sound they tend to employ in the studio.
Their 2002 release, “A Straighter Line,” has become something of a local classic and offered a glimpse of their songwriting talent – but the acoustic, laid-back sound never really displayed the bands full potential. The same can be said for their follow up EP, “Broken Dreams,” which featured Dallas music icon Kim Pendleton (Princess Tex, Vibrolux) as a guest vocalist- it fell nicely on the ears, especially the excellent cover of John Prine’s “Illegal Smile” but full scale outlaw honky-tonk it wasn’t.
On Bandwagon, they’ve taken four songs from “Straighter Line” and polished them up a bit, cleaning up the production and amping up Matt Hillyer’s vocals a couple notches. Mixed in with some new originals, a reworking of "If I Was A Candle" from "No Stranger To The Blues" and a couple of fine covers, the result is a cleaner sound, driven primarily by Aaron Wynn’s pedal steel, Chris Claridy’s acoustic guitar work, Matt Hillyer’s highly listenable, expressive voice, and backed up with Steve Berg’s bass with former Toadies drummer Mark Reznicek on percussion.
Founding members Hillyer and Berg started Eleven Hundred Springs from the semi-legendary local rockabilly act Lone Star Trio. I can still remember seeing a skinny, high school-age Matt Hillyer with that big Gibson hollow body, resuscitating old chestnuts like Hank Williams’ “Kaw-liga” by putting them to a very authentic rockabilly beat.
That same genuine love of old school roots music permeates “Bandwagon,” but make no mistake, Eleven Hundred Springs are no mere novelty nostalgia act.
Sure, they’re derivative – the way all alt country music is, practically by definition, but they’re good derivative. In fact, their real strength lies in their ability to make timeless music that sounds fresh and vital and stamp it with a signature sound that’s original at the same time.
Highlights on "Bandwagon" include the opening track “North Side Blues”- with its Doug Sahm-flavored Tex-Mex arrangement, the reworked versions of “A Straighter Line,” “Thunderbird Will Do Just Fine,” “See You In The Next Life,” “Longhaired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks,” and the new, Aaron Wynn-penned “Hank Williams Wouldn’t Make It Now In Nashville, Tennessee.”
That last title is also a recurring theme on the disc; they state their case both stylistically and lyrically as they toss off shout outs to the likes of Johnny Paycheck, Gram Parsons, Sir Douglas, and Hank, artists that have clearly left an imprint on the bands sound.
While all of those songs are great – as is most of the rest of "Bandwagon," the true high point is a cover of Mickey Newberry’s “Why You Been Gone So Long” featuring the voice of the late, great Ronnie Dawson in a duet. Hillyer and Berg’s affiliation with Dawson goes back to their Lone Star Trio days and the story goes that the vocals were recorded in 1993 by Berg, at a warm up session for a gig, on a whim. Putting these two classic voices together was a brilliant idea and with the great bass line that drives it, it not only makes for one of the catchiest country songs in a long time, it’s as fitting a tribute to the Blonde Bomber as I can imagine.
"Bandwagon" closes with another previously recorded song, the traditional folk-bluegrass standard “Rock Island Line” which also appeared on their now out-of-print “Live At Adairs.” It’s been one of their live show staples and they give it a lot of polishing here. Starting slowly, with a gentle acoustic guitar, then building in tempo with a terrific vocal by Hillyer, it’s a great closer, but again, it’s not the rousing stomper they play live.
Eleven Hundred Springs is still best experienced on stage. They’ve played constantly since their inception and through lineup changes and they’ve honed a great stage presence that never fails to please the crowd, whether they’re playing a rock club, honky-tonk, or outdoor festival.
One thing they seem to always remember is that great music, whether it’s rock, country, or blues, is primarily about having a great time. "Bandwagon" is infused with that good time spirit while still showcasing the bands ability to write meaningful songs that will, no doubt, earn a place in the canon of Texas music.
And if you’re a new convert to the band, it’s the next best thing to the show.