A native’s return

Ellijay’s Eric Sales returns to stage after long hiatus

by Michael Andrews

The following is the second installment in an ongoing series chronicling current bands and musicians from the Gilmer County area, as well as their forays into live and recorded music.

Eric Sales has played a variety of music with an equally eclectic cast of musicians. Sales began playing bass in Ellijay with his family when he was only seven years old. Contributed photo

If you go back and research Ellijay-born musician Eric Sales’ past musical endeavors, it may seem a little odd that the multitalented songwriter/bassist has been absent from live performing for much of the last 10 years.

However, go back further - back to Sales’ teenage years as a budding bass player here in Ellijay - and you’re likely to ascertain that, after having played bass and several other instruments since elementary school, the guy may just have needed a break.

Recently, though, Sales decided to return to the stage. Barely a week ago, he came back to his other former homebase of Athens to perform not as part of an ensemble, but as a solo act.

Sales’ musical education started early when father L.H. Sales Sr. purchased an electric bass and drumkit for his two young sons, Eric and L.H. Jr. This wasn’t meant to simply satisfy the boys’ curiosity or give them a new after school activity, however. L.H. Sr. had more of a hands-on education in mind.

“Being a musician was really chosen for me simply because Dad wanted to put a band together,” Eric relates. “Dad had always listened to music and played guitar. He had very far-ranging taste, from Buck Owens to the Ventures, but he really loved the mostly guitar-oriented stuff. So, I came home from school one day, it was the last day of school before Christmas break, and there was this weird looking hollowbody electric bass just sitting there in the corner of our den. My brother L.H. already had a drum set that he got somewhere around age 10. I was about seven when Dad sat us down and taught us how to play. It was fun, of course, but pretty scary at the same time. I think the first song we learned was Johnny Cash’s “Green Green Grass of Home.” Then we learned “Tequila”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, just the hits of the day. ”

Eric recalls his first actual gig was playing rudimentary covers of those hits, “Tequila” included, at Mountaintown Baptist Church’s homecoming ceremonies. After improving their skills and learning the ropes with their father in L.H. Sr.’s travelling youth singing group The Gospel Generation, as well as playing local events like the Heart Fund Show, Eric and L.H. Jr. paired up with likeminded Ellijayan Greg Reece to form an early version of The Primates.

“Greg Reece, Chuck Reece, a few other guys and myself had played this Gong Show type thing they had at the high school,” Sales recalls. “We played the old Hank Williams song “Move It On Over”, but we did the George Thorogood version. They actually liked us so much, they had us back for Senior Day. The people went crazy and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this must be what it’s like to be a rock star.’ How funny. We called ourselves the Saturday Night Warmup Band so we all wore tennis warmup suits, cowboy hats and sunglasses. This was about 1979.”

Formed a little over a year later, The Primates was a band that, upon the trio’s relocation to Athens in 1982, would become a different kind of education in and of itself. Their sound was basically loud, snotty punk rock played by guys weaned on gospel, country and Southern rock heard around their hometown. The band, like many formed in the Athens music scene of the mid-to-late 1980s, didn’t leave much of an easily accessible recorded legacy behind. Their unpredictable live shows and acknowledged knack for making it out of any tour alive - despite floundering finances - did prepare Eric, especially, for what was to come.

“Really, I’d already learned how to tour with Dad’s gospel group. So, if I brought anything from that to the Primates, it was how to pack quick, do soundchecks and, mainly, how to practice,” says Sales. “By the time I was 12 or 13, I could play the bass pretty good so when it came time to play a totally different style of music in a totally different environment I could do it after putting in the time as a kid. As the Primates, we toured a lot and were pretty young and stupid. But, somehow, someway, we always made it back home.”

The Primates disbanded in 1989, as far as Sales can recollect, on good terms. Reece went on to cultivate the outrageous Redneck GReece persona for which he is still known and L.H. Jr. manned the drums in the newly christened Redneck GReece Delux (sic) for some time.

Around 1991, Eric got a surprise invite to join a group of Athens area musicians that remains his favorite “band gig” to date - Jack Logan and Liquor Cabinet.

Jack Logan had been a familiar and unique vocalist/songwriter around the Athens scene for many years before his career received a sudden boost during the early 1990s. That’s when Logan was surprisingly signed to a potentially lucrative recording deal with Twin/Tone Records. His 42-song album “Bulk” earned rave reviews and, when it came time to go back on the road, the version of Liquor Cabinet featuring Sales on bass reformed to meet the task. The band even wound up performing on the Conan O’Brien Show - an experience Sales describes as equally exciting and surreal.
“The thing that struck me most about that time was that we were just this little band in Athens playing to a handful of people week after week. Then, all of a sudden, this machine gets behind it. There’s a label, press, a PR person and whatever else,” says Sales. “It’s completely amazing how something that got no attention before, and was still exactly the same, was getting all this nationwide acclaim and press. It was all very telling, because whatever the Primates did never worked. We just beat our heads against the wall hoping to get the least little bit of attention.”

Sales attributes his lengthy absence from performing to simply being burnt out after years of accentuating almost a dozen different bands with at least that many different styles. Early experience aside, Sales’ range is quite impressive. From the Georgia mountain gospel of his dad’s travelling band to the Primates’ punk to the R&B-infused rock of Liquor Cabinet, he was often an essential component. After over 15 years of this and Athens music life, though, Sales says it was definitely time for a breather.

“I stopped playing in bands around 1997. I was just tired of it,” says Sales. “Still, though, I never stopped writing. At some point, probably after I got married, I started playing a lot more and writing a lot more. Then, once my son was born in 2001, I started writing even more. The very simple task of purchasing a digital recorder really improved things because, wherever I was, I would have it and when an idea popped up I could capture it instead of it eventually just slipping away. I also realized the common thread of music I’ve liked and appreciated over the years is that it’s well arranged, it’s melodic and has good lyrics. With anything else, the more you work at writing songs, and trying to pen good lyrics, the easier it becomes. Right now I have about 60 songs, written over the hiatus, that I feel really comfortable with and would like to record.”

Sales now lives in Marietta where he is self-employed in a delivery business with old buddy Greg Reece. He recently played his first show in nearly a decade at the cozy Flicker Theater in Athens’ downtown area. Sales describes the songs he’s been playing lately as mostly ballads having “sad, almost depressing lyrics with happy, poppy chord progressions.” He’s never been known as a solo performer, or really a vocalist, so this activity can be seen as a new step for Sales. He’s about to record with some ace producers - including David Barbe, Sales’ former bandmate in the Athens band Buzz Hungry - but doesn’t know yet what will become of the finished product. Whatever happens, Sales is most assuredly a musician in it for the long run and also one that might just pass the knowledge acquired from father L.H. Sr. down to his own children.

“I really want to do this solo thing right. It’s kind of like starting over, which is OK by me,” says Sales. “I haven’t played bass, seriously, in quite a while. I mostly play acoustic guitar now. But I was downstairs the other day and my son looked at the big case on the floor and asked me ‘what’s in there?’ So, I took the bass out and started playing a little bit. He looks at me and goes ‘Gee, daddy, you’re good. It was like ‘Hey, thanks son!”

And as another young, curious Sales gets a primer on bass specifics, it looks like history might just be up to its old repetitious tricks again.

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