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Parachute Keith Richards into Austin in the middle of the night, deprive him of his bank accounts and credit cards, his flunkies and huge studio budget, and chances are he'd crank out a record very much like Eric Hisaw's Never Could Walk the Line. Certainly Richards is just the sort of artist who would relate to achingly obscure Gun Club singer Jeffery Lee Pierce and begin the album with a haunting tribute to a kindred spirit passed on.
Austin's Hisaw, who could be mistaken for the Pulp Fiction version of John Travolta, is a working stiff who lays tile most days to support his music habit. His two do-it-yourself albums have drawn a surprising amount of critical praise, including Jerry Renshaw's "not the usual singer-songwriter pabulum" and John Conquest's delicious "the anti-James Taylor." The records are crafted with all the plucky rough-hewn simplicity we might expect from an artist who works with his hands.
The music is as dry and straightforward as the southern New Mexico desert where Hisaw was raised. His minimalist style owes equal parts to the "Dead Flowers" country rock side of the Rolling Stones and the haunting permanent outsider persona of the Tom Petty of Southern Accents. No trust fund baby playing at knowing about common folks and their concerns, Hisaw fills his raw originals like "Garage Sale" and "I Don't Wanna Work" with the blue-collar decency of Fred Eaglesmith and Woody Guthrie. "Something Good to Say," a prodigal son's awkward conversation with his mother, wonderfully illustrates the knowing old-soul nature of Hisaw's songwriting and is the type of disarming lyric Houston's own Greg Wood seems to write so effortlessly: "Things ain't like we thought they'd be / we both expected a little more from me by this age / now we're lookin' for something good to say." When Hisaw sings, "he was a kid nobody knew / no matter how many years we went to the same school," he spotlights not only his observational prowess but that crucial songwriting gift of condensing a ton into a defining snippet. "First Time Again" and the title track sound as if they were cut from an unknown Richards solo album and are just as brutally streetwise as anything the wizened Stone might offer. It's easy to imagine Richards convincingly croaking in his leathery rasp, "Jesus turned water into wine / my cousin killed himself drinkin' turpentine."
Hisaw first met Greg Wood when he opened for Wood's band Horseshoe in Las Cruces in 1997, during the defunct alt-country fave's first successful West Coast swing. Their pairing at Rudyard's reunites two artists with much in common -- and not just their criminally unjust obscurity. There won't be any taco'd straw hats or color-coordinated cowboy shirts, but true Texas music and torrents of hot licks should be in abundant supply.
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