Eric Hisaw is a literary songwriter who's content to be a member of the band
Singer or musician first? Eric Hisaw doesn't hesitate before answering. "I think of myself as a writer first. A songwriter. That's why I started playing." He adds, "But I definitely think of myself as a guitar player. Part of what I write comes from the perspective of playing music."
With his shaggy hair, jeans, and a T-shirt that almost conceals crude tattoos on both arms, the Austin-based Hisaw looks like an alt-country musician straight from central casting. But there's no doubt Hisaw is authentic. He has the coexisting restlessness and ease of a 32-year-old who has spent most of his life playing music wherever he can.
Music has been important to Hisaw since he first saw The Buddy Holly Story on television as a kid. He reminisces about another of his big early influences: "Seeing the Joe Ely band open for Linda Ronstadt in 1981 or '82, whenever it was," Hisaw says over enchiladas and coffee before a recent Casbeers gig. "I remember going to the show and just being knocked out and wanting to be like Joe Ely and Jesse Taylor, his guitar player."
The rest of the story is inevitable: Hisaw started playing in bands at 12 and outgrew his hometown Las Cruces, New Mexico, by the time he graduated from high school. He headed for Louisiana, then Austin, and after a few years in Nashville found his way back to Texas.
"The thing that keeps me in Austin is that I know so many songwriters who will employ me to play their music," he says. "I can play 250 gigs a year, whereas I don't know if I could do that some place else." Certainly not in San Antonio, where he lived in 1995. His girlfriend and fellow singer-songwriter Chrissy Flatt is originally from San Antonio.
Hisaw says he has as many friends in San Antonio as he does in Austin. "I'd rather live in San Antonio, vibe wise," he says. "There are a lot of similarities between San Antonio and Las Cruces. Austin is so not a hometown. Everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone has an agenda." He laughs at the irony of his observation. "I'm not from Austin, I have an agenda, therefore I should fit in, right?"
Hisaw's "agenda" is simple: keep writing songs, playing guitar, and touring. "I wish I could make a living touring more," he says. "When you're touring, every night is an adventure."
Somewhere between the enchiladas and a third or fourth cup of coffee, pedal-steel player Larry Tracy ambles past the booth and reminds Hisaw, who isn't wearing a watch, that they have to play soon.
Last month Hisaw and Tracy toured the East Coast as a duo. They played several shows set up by DJs who have been playing Hisaw's CDs. Those discs, Thing About Trains and Never Could Walk the Line, have established Hisaw's particular literary, character-driven approach to songwriting. He recorded and produced them on his own.
"Realistically, there are six or seven record labels that do the kind of music that I do," he says. "Of course I'd like to be signed to Rounder or New West, but you know, record labels are almost obsolete now. The ultimate goal isn't that you get signed by some label and then you're a star." For Hisaw, the true goal is being able to continue playing music.
And does his writing extend beyond the song form? "I want to write fiction but I'm so undisciplined," he says. "I'm really into short stories by Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, Dagoberto Gilb - we do a song that I swiped from a Dagoberto Gilb story; it's called 'Dance with the Prettiest Girl,' from his first book, The Magic of Blood. It's the book closest to my life."
Before Hisaw can explain how the stories are like his life, it's time for him to take the stage. The crowd is modest, it's a week night in San Antonio after all - but unmistakably attentive. A table of women dressed for a night out holler laudatory comments in between songs, and Hisaw gallantly fields their yells without interrupting the flow of music. He tosses in some crowd-pleasing covers by Dylan and Doug Sahm between his original songs, which hold their own in the formidable mix. Hisaw encourages an energetic couple in their dancing efforts, introduces all four musicians, twice, and makes it clear to everyone that there's no place else he'd rather be. •
By Dawn Pomento