Matt Hillyer, also known as “Matt the Cat” and as the leader of Dallas-based and beloved Honky-Tonk band Eleven Hundred Springs is, rather simply, an artist. Few artists stick to a single, narrow path as they wander, viewing things in a philosophically unique way than many non-artist types might.
With the release of Hillyer’s debut solo album, the Lloyd Maines-produced If These Bones Could Talk, we get to see a new side to Hillyer’s country-gold vision, but to be clear, his solo foray isn’t the end of Eleven Hundred Springs, which was formed in 1998, nor is it the death of the rockabilly-flavored Matt the Cat Trio. Hillyer as a solo artist with a fresh group of players, including some buddies from Eleven Hundred Springs, is merely a fascinating, new chapter to a musical life that’s never been conventional, and isn’t going to be anytime soon.
With 11 new songs, all written or co-written by HIllyer except for his rocking, stomping cover of the Everly Brothers’ classic the “Price of Love,” a rare occurrence has taken place. The leader of a popular, established band has branched out to go on a personal, musical vision quest, and has come back with a sound that satisfies on all levels. In some ways, These Old Bones resembles the stone-cold country of his band, but the new collection has increased the sonic value of everything he’s affiliated with, thanks to spreading his tattooed, whiskey-soaked wings a bit.
The notion for a solo record came from a wonderfully personal spot that’s as honest as it is meaningful to Hillyer.
“I was very close with my Grandmother, he says. “She was always pushing me to do it. She loved Eleven Hundred Springs, but she really wanted me to make something with my name on it. So, over the years, it started to seem like a good idea as I did more solo acoustic shows. It also seemed like a good idea for me to have a CD of my own to sell at some of those shows. Then when these songs started to come out in my writing, I really wanted to make this happen.”
While cuts such as “Home is Where the Heartbreak Is” certainly recalls a familiar Buck Owens-esque brightness and “Try Not to Take it So Hard” has the classic Texas Tornadoes playfulness some of Eleven Hundred Springs best tunes boast, one listen to “Dancing With the Moon,” a smooth, soft romancer of a tune, and it’s clear Hillyer’s found another gear of country storytelling that is only the beginning of a new era for him, whether it’s solo, as a trio or leading “Eleven Hondo.” The same can be said for the begging-to-be-two stepped-to “I Still Have a Lot of Falling Left To Go,” as it’s gentle fiddle leads Hillyer through a piano-twinkling sawdust shuffler that doesn’t kick the footlights as hard as some of his other band’s best tunes do.
Hillyer acknowledges the similarities between his past band-related works, but highlights the differences in a manner that’s clear with drama-free simplicity.
“To me it always boils down to the material, he says. “I know there are songs on this album that I would not have put on an Eleven Hundred Springs album. Even the songs that would fit like a glove on an Eleven Hundred Springs album are, for the most part, rooted in very personal places. When the collection of these songs started to really come together it became apparent to me that the majority of them felt like something I was trying to say independent of a group.”