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Colorado River Blues

For New Mexico-bred singer-songwriter Eric Hisaw, the move to Austin is just starting to pay

Austin did a number on me. -- "Ramblin' Blues," Eric Hisaw

Austin may have done a number on Las Cruces, New Mexico, native Eric Hisaw, but he's been there long enough to have gained some perspective on his impetuous move to the Live Music Capital.

"I was 18 when I came to Austin in 1990. I'd been playing in a band called Last Band on Earth. There wasn't much of a scene in New Mexico, although I grew up with a guy who plays guitar with Chuck Prophet and another guy who works with Cracker and Counting Crows in various capacities. I guess I came here a little young and was just completely overwhelmed by how much was going on. Austin just looked like a place where roots music thrived and a person could work as a musician." His wry look says, "How naive could I have been?"

Hisaw quickly learned that despite its scene and reputation, Austin was a brutal place for an alt-country singer-songwriter to try to make ends meet. "It's so tough to be a local success. You find out it's really more a place to work from than to aspire to hometown stardom in." But as he supported himself laying tile and doing remodeling jobs to make ends meet, he began to connect with people established in the scene.

"I was lucky enough to work with Ron Flynt. He was in a power-pop band in the late '70s called 20/20, very influential to people like Matthew Sweet, Fastball and the like. Ron has a studio and has taught me a ton about recording and musicianship. And through Ron I met and worked with Scrappy Jud Newcomb, one of my favorite guitar players and a great writer. I also got connected with Dana Myzer, Mary Cutrufello's former drummer, and Lisa Mednick, who is just a killer accordionist and songwriter. And on my first record I got to work with Ernie Durawa from Texas Tornados, who for some reason has always been really kind to me."

Hisaw worked his way into the scene as a sideman in John Stark's band Blue Diamond Shine while building a small solo following and gathering a core group of musicians for gigs. In 2000, he released his first album, Thing About Trains, on a shoestring budget. Local heroes like Champ Hood and Reckless Kelly's Cody Braun made appearances -- Hisaw describes the sessions as "a really good introduction to a lot of hardworking music fanatics." And critics took notice of the result: Hisaw's dry, salty, older-than-his-years vocals and the been-there-done-that realism of his songs. He also began to garner airplay on open-format stations around the country.

"I had a bunch of hotshots on my first record. Besides Ernie Durawa, I had Charlie Larkey, who has played on several million-selling records and was even in the Fugs at one time. Ponty Bone of Joe Ely Band fame played on it. I paid everybody something for being on the record, but it wasn't much. They all really helped me out and treated it like they really wanted to be there, but you can't make a record and not budget to pay the players. Everyone in this town works, either playing or some kind of job, so you can't ask them to take time away from paying work to do something for free even if they're friends. I don't think I ever paid Cody.

"Trains actually did well with the radio guys. When it peaked at No. 8 on the Freeform Americana charts, I was really excited because I was tied with Gurf Morlix and Peter Case, both big favorites of mine."

Hisaw's next challenge was converting his modest debut success into something that would pay the bills and get the tile trowel out of his hand. He also needed a stable lineup for his live gigs.

"I played with Blue Diamond Shine all I could and was on their record That Godforsaken Road that came out in 2002. We toured America and all that, did the Billy Block show in Nashville. I also played on the Heymakers' Makin' Hey album. Those bands all sort of cross-pollinate with my Eric Hisaw Band lineup."

Hisaw released a second album, Never Could Walk the Line, in 2003. It featured considerable growth in songwriting, and he seemed to be more comfortable as a vocalist. His straightforward delivery perfectly matches blue-collar stories like "I Don't Wanna Work," "Garage Sale" and "Something Good to Say." The album got Hisaw even wider press coverage than his first and added impetus to his career, although he's the first to admit he hasn't yet reached a place where his musical future is a certainty.

"But I am finally gigging constantly. Austin is probably our worst market because we've played here enough now that it's never an event, but we manage to make a little money in the Hill Country at places like Kerrville, Marble Falls, San Marcos and Wimberley and have people who know us there. San Antonio has always been cool for radio play and publicity, and we're in two great venues there, Casbeer's and Floore's Country Store. I've been trying to focus on Dallas, and a little following in North Texas seems to be growing. Still, I guess my favorite places to play are northern New Mexico and Oklahoma. I don't know that I have what could legitimately be called a following there, but people are starting to catch on. My family roots are in Oklahoma, and I'm really influenced by a lot of music from there, so I tend to get on well with people up there. And New Mexico is home country, where most of my story songs come from."

Austin may have "done a number" on Hisaw, but he's finally reached a point in his career where he's undaunted by the difficulties of making it. "My main focus right now is getting a new record made. It's written and conceived; the songs are demo'd; and I'm already shopping it around to some labels. Sure, there's still a bunch of hills to climb, but I love the challenge of being a professional musician. It makes for an interesting life.

"I don't care about being a Nashville-type star or any of that stuff. The people whose careers I admire are guys like J.J. Cale or Dave Alvin. They've had songs covered by big-name artists and they can continue to tour and make records doing things their own way. Artistically, my goal is just to be able to find a home for the music I create. And financially, I just want to pay off some debts."

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