Eric Hisaw has always enjoyed carnivals, albeit for slightly unusual reasons. Whereas many people frequent carnivals to experience gravity-defying rides and down cotton candy and soda, Hisaw prefers to watch the the workers who operate those gravity-defying rides and shill the cotton candy.
“I always had this memory of going to the carnival, seeing the carnies and wondering what that life was like,” the 36-year-old Hisaw (pronounced HIGH-saw) says before a gig at Riley’s Tavern on the outskirts of New Braunfels. “I’ve always been fascinated by the traveling carnival characters, going to the carnival and seeing the guys running the rides, all the tattoos and suicide scars, like, ‘Look at the crazy guys.’”
Those “tattoos and suicide scars” made their way into the single, “Carnival,” a track from Hisaw’s new album, Nature of the Blues (out on SA punk impresario Jeff Smith’s Saustex label). The Austin-based Hisaw will celebrate the July 15 release of the album with a CD-release party on Friday at Sam’s Burger Joint.
The itinerant lifestyle experienced by carnival folk served as Hisaw’s primary inspiration for Nature of the Blues, evidenced by testament-to-the-road tracks such as “Cheap Living” and “Drifting’ Life.” The glowing 13-track pseudo-concept record — Hisaw’s lengthiest release to date — blends an old-school mix of rock, country, Americana, and pop.
Nature of the Blues, however, wasn’t penned strictly as an ode to life on the road. Portions of it were also written in homage to the Man in Black.
“I always wanted to write a song about Johnny Cash,” Hisaw says. “When I was a kid, me and a friend had a ‘What Would Johnny Cash Do’ ethic, and we used that mainly to talk ourselves into doing really stupid things, the way Johnny Cash would do it. One time, my friend talked me out of going to rehearsal for this really unimpressive punk-rock band I was in at the time and talked me into going to the carnival, on the grounds that Johnny Cash would have gone to the carnival. `The new album` is about remembering those times.”
Nature of the Blues is also about paying tribute to what Hisaw calls “the merits of a small town” — the boulevards, cheap motels, local honkytonks, and working-class folk that help define the culture and identity of those towns.
Hisaw is, after all, a working man himself.
Upon rolling up to Riley’s Tavern on this particular evening, he exits his tour van in faded blue jeans, a halfway-buttoned-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and cowboy boots with more than a few miles on their odometer. He gigs nonstop in Austin and the surrounding areas, and even delivers wine on the side to supplement his income.
And while other Austin musicians — that means you, Bob Schneider — have parlayed the national spotlight into a comfortable musical existence in Austin, Hisaw says he’s quite comfortable with his role as an outsider in the Live Music Capital of the World.
“Austin is great for some things, but the notion of being a popular act in Austin doesn’t really interest me that much,” he says. “I’ve lived there a long time — half my life, really — and I’ve never felt like part of the real popular thing that was going on. I’ve always felt like I was part of the undercurrent. I’m not that interested in being a nightclub entertainer, and that’s what some of these guys have capitalized on ... That doesn’t appeal to me, and I don’t want to do that. I’m more interested in playing music.”
Not that Hisaw deflects all pretense of notoriety. Fifteen years ago, at the ripe old age of 21, he set out for fame and fortune in Nashville. Though enamored with the city itself, Hisaw quickly fell out of love with the Nashville music scene and returned to Austin less than a year later. Even today, however, he is happy to hear some of his music played in television spots for CMT, and even holds out hope that a never-saw-them-coming Nashville star might one day cover one of his tunes.
Gretchen Wilson, if you’re reading, Hisaw is extending the invite.
“If Gretchen Wilson did one of my songs, everything would be a lot different,” he jokes about his professional and financial fortunes. “I would love that, but actually going and trying to make that happen is a different thing.”
Which is why Hisaw is content in Austin; it’s stable, musician-friendly, and provides an outlet for his work. Even so, he hasn’t ruled out heading down I-35 and settling in San Antonio — his mother’s place of residence — at some point.
Or perhaps Hisaw — like the restless carnies that intrigue him so much — will never truly settle down. •
Eric Hisaw: CD Release show
Fri, Jul 18
Sam’s Burger Joint
330 E. Grayson St.