Johnny Hickman: Measure of a Deep Thinking Man

If you look at all the projects Johnny Hickman is involved with (it seems like even his side projects have side projects) you get the sense that the man never sleeps.

And even those rare times when he does manage to sneak in a nap, you also get the sense his active mind never shuts off. Which for music fans is good, because it also means Hickman never stops creating.

Most people know Johnny Hickman as the lead guitarist virtuoso/co-founder of Cracker. But Hickman’s axe work and vocals can also be heard with The Hickman-Dalton Gang as well as Hickman’s own solo records. And what the combination of all those works reveal is an artist who not only is getting some long overdue props for his many years of outstanding (and underrated) guitar playing, but also someone who has established himself as a top notch songwriter and singer.

The pleasure of talking to Johnny is that Johnny Hickman is Johnny Hickman no matter what setting you’re in. There’s no act. He doesn’t put on a good face just for an interview. I’ve talked to Johnny both for formal interviews and in much more casual (bar) settings and he has the same pleasant personality. He’s a guy who likes to talk to people.

Most recently, I chatted with him on a rare day off from his home in Colorado to discuss his new solo record as well as other busy happenings in his life.

Cracker

This is the mothership for Hickman. In 1992, Hickman and David Lowery released their self-titled Cracker debut album which contained the alternative radio hit “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).” They followed that up with Kerosene Hat in 1993, an album filled with many of Cracker’s biggest radio hits including, “Low,” “Get Off This” and “Eurotrash Girl.”

Unfortunately, Cracker’s mainstream success in the 1990′s didn’t carry over into the next decade. That changed with the 2009 release of Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey,  an excellent guitar driven rock album that turned out to be Cracker’s biggest release since Kerosene Hat.

“It kind of put us back on the map. We got some good airplay with “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” Hickman said. “We were really pleasantly surprised it did well.”

Hickman has described Cracker as “one of those bands not under the radar, but right at the radar.” Fortunately for them, the fans they do have – affectionately known as the Crumb Nation – are very loyal. And because of that, David and Johnny aren’t afraid to play venues off the beaten path as well as traditional venues. After Christmas, Cracker will be making a west coast run of shows before playing New Year’s Eve in Denver. In 2013, Hickman thinks he and Lowery will start writing the next Cracker album.

Upcoming Cracker Tour Dates:

Dec. 27 – Solana Beach, CA
Dec. 28 – San Fran, CA
Dec. 29 – Petaluma, CA
Dec. 31 – Denver, CO
Jan. 18 – Philadelphia, PA
Jan. 19 – NYC, NY
Jan. 20 – Cambridge, MA
Feb. 14 – Minneapolis, MN

Old school Johnny

Hickman-Dalton Gang

When Hickman isn’t playing alt-rock guitar god, he usually can be found feeding his country music side with his good friend Jim Dalton (Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, The Railbenders). Together, they make up The Hickman-Dalton Gang. HDG have released two albums. And like Cracker, Hickman and Dalton are comfortable going on the road as a duo as well as a full band, sometimes inviting friends along including Jeremy Lawton (Big Head Todd & The Monsters) Tony Nascar (The Railbenders) and Chris “Pelon” Helvey (T. Benoit & the Shuckers).

Upcoming Hickman-Dalton Gang shows

Dec. 22 – Keystone, CO
Jan. 25 – Rocky Point, MX

Feb. 8 – Ft. Collins, CO

Feb. 9 – Ft. Collins, CO

 

Johnny Hickman solo

In 2005, Hickman released his first solo album, the outstanding Palmhenge.

“I was happy people embraced Palmhenge. It did well. It was really accepted as standing on its own away from Cracker,” he said.

His long awaited follow-up, Tilting, was released earlier this year. It’s another great release by Hickman, but in a different way than Palmhenge.

“I was really pleased with the way Palmhenge turned out, but the last thing I wanted to do was make Palmhenge Mach II. It still sounds like me, Tilting, but I’m in a different place now, so a lot of the songs reflect that, and I was sort of feeling in a different way musically. I really had been reminiscing about the British Invasion and things that were a little more like hard edge pop,” he said.

On Tilting, the 56-year-old Hickman leaves all inhibitions at the door, and writes a completely honest and open record reflecting on where he expected his life to be today and where it ended up.

“A lot of songs on Tilting deal with being at the halfway point in life, sort of, and reflecting on that and sometimes rebelling against that, and sometimes embracing that and being proud and happy for what you have, what you’ve been blessed with.”

Hickman admitted that part of the album was also affected by the election year. One of the last songs written for Tilting was “Dream Along With Me,” inspired in part by the constant arguing Hickman was seeing on Facebook about how the country would be ruined if that person’s candidate didn’t win.

“There was so much anger and so much conflict. And occasionally I would see that as humorous. But there were a lot of days I just thought it was sad, all the division in our country. And I have very good friends who are conservative and good friends who are liberal and I didn’t like seeing all the anger and all the hate surfacing in the press and on Facebook,” he said.

“Dream Along With Me” became a “sort of soothing song,” Hickman said.

“What if I could just offer a hug, and that’s what the song became,” he said.

Another song, “Drunkard’s Epiphany,” was a song that came to Hickman in a dream. He calls it an “odd little song” with dark humor that touches on religious beings and drunkeness all at once, and whether the long bearded man at the end of the bar is a construction worker or Jesus. Hickman and his friends even made a video for the song, filming one night in a Colorado bar. Though they had the bar owner’s permission, not many other patrons that night were aware of what was happening.

“A lot of people in the video don’t know that a video is being made. You could see it on their faces, ‘What’s this guy walking around singing about? We just came in here for a beer to talk about our meeting and there’s this guy singing.’ Then when I got thrown out, I got a buddy of mine who played the bouncer, and he’s been a bouncer before and he did a good job of throwing me out of the place,’” he recalled with a laugh, noting that many of the bar employees thought Hickman was a real drunk patron really getting tossed.

To finance the album, Hickman took a unique approach: he asked his fans to help pay for it. Johnny took advantage of the Kickstarter program, established to help artists get their music recorded and out to the public. Based on the level of donation, every fan who contributed had the opportunity to get everything from an advanced autographed copy of Tilting to rare out-takes that were not placed on the album to having Johnny himself show up at the door to play a concert in the living room.

“I am absolutely overjoyed with the Kickstarter turned out,” he said. “Those have been some of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever done in my life. The living rooms half filled with strangers, half filled with hardcore fans…I can’t tell you how fantastic these shows have been. I was so completely touched by the hospitality by some of the fans.”

By using the Kickstarter program, Hickman retained 100% creative control over his product. He didn’t make a lot of money, but the album cost a fifth of what it normally would for a major label release, he said. And the fans feel like they contributed in making the record.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said.

Online Presence

Both Hickman and Lowery are very active on the Internet and social media pages such as Facebook. They are particularly passionate about the issue of music piracy.

“One of the sadder morphs is less people value music enough to pay for it. Because the technology exists they can just grab it. It’s not just music, it’s art, it’s photography and poetry and books and films,” Hickman said.

New artists aren’t inspired to create because they think they’re work is just going to be ripped off and passed around for free, he said. Hickman isn’t opposed to fans sharing a few songs or burning a CD for a friend to try and win over new fans. But what he’s opposed to are websites that post an artist’s complete catalog and make it all available for free download.

Hickman knows those who favor free music on the Internet will argue that artists make their real money off touring. But touring has many expenses and risks that those people don’t take into account, Hickman said. One cancelled show can put an artist in the red for the rest of the week, he said.

While Hickman is OK with services such as iTunes, the issue of Internet radio and free streaming sights such as Spotify is something he’s still grappling with. His song, “San Bernadino Boy,” from Palmhenge, got more than 25,000 plays on Spotify, Hickman said. His royalty check payment was nine cents.

Johnny Hickman solo shows

Dec. 21 – Denver, CO

4 comments

  1. Chris Baldwin

    Great article about a great songwriter/musician. I’ve been a Hickman fan for years, his solo releases are exceptional.

  2. K. Gripp

    Johnny is a total class act. Great musician and great person. I strongly recommend all the music… Cracker, Hickman Dalton Gang and solo Johnny Hickman – all are among my favorites.

  3. Jo-Anne Bartz

    Hickman’s solo albums are wonderful examples of a singer/songwriter who knows who he is and excels in his craft. The songs are varied and relevant. His Crackers albums are fun and timeless, as is evident by their longevity but his solo works are more introspective (mixed with fun, commercial tunes) drawing the best out of his soul and god-given talents. Nothing mind-numbing about his writing. Beautiful, poignant, soulful renditions. He seems to draw on a wide variety of musical talent-rock, folk, blues- and that is what makes his works so memorable. I believe his solo talent will eventually out shine his other works- as he forms a connection and bond with the listener. There is always a time for Cracker, but now is the time for Johnny Hickman to come into his own.
    Looking forward to the next act.

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