Ben Dickey just looks like he’s got a good story to tell. The 6’4 Arkansawyer certainly has a history. His father played football for the 1968 Razorbacks under Frank Broyles and his mother was the Director of Special Operations for President Bill Clinton… Ben can claim a distant family relation to Johnny Cash and once, as I understand it, he was a bodyguard for Barbra Streisand. He played punk music as a teenager in Little Rock and migrated east to The City of Brotherly Love to form the band Blood Feathers. During that time, Ben paid the bills by working in Philadelphia’s kitchens before ultimately becoming a chef. He met Ethan Hawke through his “sweetheart” who was lifelong friends with Hawke’s wife. The two bonded over music– especially when the subject turned to Blaze Foley, the tragic singer-songwriter who died gut-shot on an Austin, Texas street. Ben would go on to star as the titular character in Hawke’s labor of love biopic, Blaze– his very first acting role. But even now, with a couple of film credits to his name and more in the works (he also had a role in Vincent D’Onofrio’s western, The Kid), Ben Dickey still cultivates the life of the songwriter. His latest album, A Glimmer on the Outskirts, is a jangly, sweet sophomore effort that finds Ben in good company with producer (and Blaze co-star) Charlie Sexton. It also marks the first release from SexHawkeBlack Records– the label started by Sexton, Hawke, and SXSW co-founder Louis Black. I had a lot of questions for Ben Dickey, kids, and before I knew it, 10 minutes became 20 then 30…
AI- A Glimmer on the Outskirts… Initially, when I heard it, I knew that Charlie Sexton had been involved with the production. It has that great… I like to think of it as like a concentrated jangle that I associate with him. But I’d gone back and spent some time with Sexy Birds and Saltwater Classics and that sound [I thought was his] was all you. Tell me about putting that album together. Was this before or after you’d gotten hooked up with the movie Blaze?
BD- It was before. I still lived in Philadelphia when I made ‘Sexy Birds’, and I was still working in the kitchen. I was a chef. That was my other existence. My band and I broke up and I was trying to put the gun to this solo album… I was working on it every other Monday for about nine or ten months– which is not an ideal way to make a record (laughs)!
It’s not– but did the restaurant thing, working as a chef… Did you have a particular restaurant that you worked at?
Yeah, I worked at a restaurant in Philadelphia called Johnny Brenda’s. It’s a landmark, wonderful… You know, people want to call it a gastropub. We were more of a French-y, kinda Caribbean… When I got in there, it was kind of a soul food joint, but Johnny Brenda’s is like one of the best places to play music and see music in Philadelphia– a room about 300 can fit in. And then downstairs it’s a bistro for all intents and purposes. It was seven days a week, 11:00 AM to 1:00 AM and tryin’ to run a rock n’ roll band at the same time. It was not a recipe for sanity.
It seems to me, having done it myself, that so many musicians come up making their day to day living in the restaurant business. Was there a point arriving where one was about to win out over the other– and maybe it wasn’t the music?
Yeah, I mean it’s true. So many artists can find their way in the service industry and musicians somehow always seem to float to the back of the house, the kitchen. But yeah, it started taking over my life– and I love it. I’m a fan of food, I’m a fan of the culture, I’m a fan of the technique and discipline of it all. And I was a fan of working in the kitchen to the extent I became a sous chef. Then when I started running kitchens, it was really hard to do other things. Every single kitchen I ever ran, I always found my way into bargaining time with the owners– you know, as like, “Look, I’ll do this and I won’t give you any trouble and I’ll do a good job. It’ll be fun. But I’m also going to be going away for little two or three weeks here and there throughout the year.
But it definitely took over when my band Blood Feathers broke up. I sort of dropped… Kinda out of just be a really down and sad about it. I kind of dropped the bargain of like “freedom”. I was like, “Whatever, I’ll just go full throttle if you want to give me a little bit more money. And since I don’t have a band anymore, I won’t be going on tour or anything.” And that choice was really a poor one. Some events happened in 2014 Spring where I had to part with a sous chef that I love– he’s also a musician, but he just wasn’t helping me out as much as I needed. And the same week that that happened, one of the finest individuals I’ve ever known, a wonderful line cook and wonderful human being was killed on his bike, on his birthday after a shift… And everything just sorta stopped.
I could see everything in slow motion and it didn’t make sense to be doin’ what I was doin’ where I was doin’ it. Part of my brain sort of shut down and all I wanted to do was do the job well until I was done. And I gave my friend, the owner that I worked for, four months’ notice– which is good, you know, four months is plenty of time. But when that week happened and when all those events happened trying to put together [that] record… I knew I had to do something different and that’s when I sort of hatched the plan to come down to Louisiana and try to refocus my life and music the way that I really felt like I needed to. And then Blaze happened. We moved down here in the Fall of ’14, and it was New Year’s Eve ’15 going into ’16 up in New York with Ethan [Hawke] and his family that he hatched that idea out of the blue.
And that idea… It didn’t take long for it to get out because I remember… I have a good friend here. We’re both fans of Blaze Foley, that style of music. And it was like that rumor had come up and now all of a sudden we’re excited. Like, “Really? There’s gonna be a movie about Blaze Foley?” And the first question everybody asks is, “Who’s playin’ him?”And then all of a sudden it’s like, “Well, who’s Ben Dickey?” And then you dig a little deeper and find out that you are indeed a musician. Did you have any reservations about picking up that role?
Yes! I mean, it was scary. It was something I’d never done before. It’s something that my friend Ethan really believed I could do, but I didn’t have any vision towards that at all– nor proper ambition, you know? But I love Ethan, and I know his integrity of the way he works and what he works on. And I knew if he was going to do a movie about Blaze, he was going to take care of Blaze. That was the most important thing to me because I, like you, absolutely love Blaze Foley– and the thing that I knew I could do… I didn’t know about the acting part, but I knew that I could be obsessive about his songs and take care of them and protect them. I can’t sing exactly like Blaze– my voice isn’t deep enough– but I can represent the song pretty close to what I believe Blaze’s intention was for the song to be.
So that’s what I knew I could do, and Ethan knew that I would take that seriously. From the moment that the plan was hatched, which was New Year’s Eve of 2015 going into ’16, a year to that moment in time, we were halfway done makin’ the thing. I was unbelievably nervous, and I was not afraid (laughs) to share that nervousness! When Alia Shawkat and I first met, it was very important that we have good chemistry– and that whole process of meeting her… Because I was someone who cared about what she did and I thought she is and was a really bright and talented person. I just wanted to make sure she didn’t look at me and go, “Oh, no, this guy?” You know, deer in the headlights! (Laughs)
I opened up to her pretty quickly upon our first meeting and said, “You can’t believe how nervous I am.” And she said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, you can’t believe how nervous I am! For two days, I’ve been putting together an outfit to come meet you guys!” And she loves Blaze too, which was a wonderful surprise because we had one pick for Sybil Rosen– and it was Alia. And not only did she know who he was, she absolutely adored Blaze Foley. It’s always exciting when you meet somebody in their twenties that’s from California that’s like, “Oh yeah, Blaze Foley, I love him!”
And with so many other artists that sort of fall within that genre. I read Sybil Rosen’s book, thoroughly enjoyed it– and of course, it reads as a love story more than an exploration of the man. When you step into a role like that– into Blaze’s duct-taped boots if you will– did it feel a little strange? Particularly when you and Charlie Sexton were banterin’ back and forth as Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt. What was your reaction to that?
Well, the wind-up, first of all, [is that] I’ve been loving Charlie’s work for a long time. And the first thing that Charlie did– again, we only had one choice for Townes and it was Charlie. And one of the first things that he did was he invited me to a show. He was in Baton Rouge with Bob [Dylan], and that was when I first met him. He was nervous too, going into that role. He knew those guys, man. He knew Townes, he knew Blaze, and his mother was very, very close to both of them. He had a wonderful relationship with Townes…
His affectations of Townes are really kinda uncanny.
Exactly right. So my wind-up getting into the role– and this is my first time doing it, and I might’ve gone overboard– but I just absolutely immersed myself in Blaze’s music and listenin’ to his voice. In the process of doing that, I really hypnotized myself. It was the music and the songs and the intention of all the songs. Then I started a very frank and wonderful pen pal-ship with Sybil Rosen via email before she came to set. She was on set the whole time. I was nervous to meet her too. Just like I was never nervous to meet Alia. It was her generosity opening up to me and telling me things about herself and Blaze and their love– and then taking care of me. For six and a half-something weeks like that, before she came to set before we started filming, we wrote each other two or three times a day.
During the time that I was writing her like that, all I was doing was immersing in his songs and obsessively reading the script over and over and over again. ‘Cause I was just so nervous about, you know, f—-n’ up, man. So when that started, every single day that I was inside of that process, I had these little moments, these wonderful little like, postcards if you will, that would arrive from Sybil– and they would be full of wonderful stories. She and I fell in love as friends and as artists and inside of her trust of me, I became a version of Blaze. And method acting and all that stuff? I’m not sure about any of that, but what I do know is that I pushed myself to the side for the whole time. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t talk to Ben, but I was in a different way.
When Charlie and I were on set doing these things, we were no longer like, “Yo, hey, Charlie!” It was very much like I was looking at Townes– and Blaze revered Townes. He loved Townes and called him his daddy. He’s like, “That’s my soul father.” That’s the way it was on set and the two of us. Charlie and I went through a heavy thing, and we shared that and bonded over that. And that was lucky because it helped both of us after the fact. I’m also really proud to call him my friend, and I love workin’ and playin’ with Charlie. While we were doing the scenes of us doing the bumps of cocaine and talkin’ about thanks for helping out Townes, that’s who and where we were. That’s what we were doing.
You also got to share some time with Kris Kristofferson. That just beautifully sad and emotional scene where you and your on-screen sister [Alynda Segarra] are playing the songs for him? What was that like?
Well, I tell people this, and I’ve said it before, but it really is the closest that I feel like I’ll ever come to meetin’ Gandalf.
He is a bit of a sorcerer isn’t he?
He really is! Kris has this really singular power… When I say power, I mean power for good. The closest I can think of is Johnny Cash of having this presence, this huge presence that represents good and represents the right and represents sexy and represents man– but like sensitive man– represents hope… And when Ethan told me he might come… ‘Cause you know, we didn’t know he was for sure going to arrive until about six hours… ‘Cause you know they came from Hawaii pro bono. They told us, “Yeah, yeah we’re comin’,” but they were off the radar for about four and a half weeks. Nobody could contact ’em and then they called him from like Dallas and said, “Hey, we’ll be there shortly. ” Those scenes? I had to do some serious breathing exercises just to calm down because I was so, so excited to be working with Kris and to be talking with Kris. We had dinner the night before our scenes, and I just love him so much and I love his body of work and I love what it stands for. So I was just trying to slow time down so that I could absorb, you know? And when we did the scene, it’s heavy stuff. It’s Blaze revealing to Sybil that this guy was not a good guy, not a funny guy. He’s an awful guy. Most of the scenes that we did together, we’re just staring deeply into each other’s eyes. And again, I’m just trying to slow down time to be able to take it in and let him know, “Hey, I see you too, brother. I appreciate all you’ve done in this world.”
When we finished singin’ that song with Alynda Segarra and I, everybody’s crying! I was crying! Kris gave us such a generous performance. Then when he started crying, it was so heavy… In the movie, we only show the beginning of where he went because he really was in that moment, and we were his kids and he was essentially saying goodbye to us. As soon as they said cut, I said, “Is it okay if we come over there?” And Alynda and I just stuck on him for about two and a half minutes and then he’s like [impersonates Kris Kristofferson voice], “Alright, you gotta let me go now.” (Laughs)
One more question I want to ask about the movie and then I really want to talk about your album. There’s a part at the end of the credits about the fictionalization of some parts of the film, but there’s a section about the portrayal of Townes… What was behind that statement or is that something you can talk about?
Yeah, I’ll keep it real simple. JT Van Zandt– who looks and sounds just like his father and is an intense individual… He was 1000% for and all about this movie being made. He was the one that we really wanted to have no fear because he was lending some pretty big songs. It was heavy and so he was all about it. He was totally all about it though. And one thing that happened was he was like, “Man, I don’t want to see it until y’all premiere at SXSW, and Ethan and I both were very nervous about that. You know, like, “What if? We don’t know?” And we didn’t think that anything was happening in there that he was going to be bent out of shape about. And initially he wasn’t, but when he slept on it, he didn’t like that Townes ran from the fight…
I knew it! I knew that’s what it was!
Yeah, pretty much. And with that goes that Townes never was over at Concho’s house. He never went over to that house that anybody knows… But we don’t know about that… But I think once he got down to it, he was like, “Man, my dad wouldn’t have run from a fight,” and everything kind of halted for the real release it for a little bit. He wasn’t hijacking the movie by any measure, but he wanted something done about it. He wanted us to, a) Know that he wouldn’t have run from a fight and b) We gotta do something about this. And we didn’t want to lose that scene, you know? ‘Cause it’s a funny little moment, but it also establishes where Townes and Blaze were with one another. So I added a little ADR, you know, and when I turned my back right before that front porch fight scene and I say, “Townes, go get the car.” And [JT] gave us permission to do everything, but he wanted us to put in there that this ain’t really representing what Townes is about. But what’s funny is after that was all said and done, JT came to an event. And he was like, “You know what? My dad probably would’ve run from that fight!”
But he wanted to have that. He was like, “I wasn’t going to lose that one!”
Let’s go back to A Glimmer on the Outskirts. One of the things that I think is really powerful about it is that all of the songs have a bit of a cinematic quality about them. And I mean this as a compliment– each one seems like it could be behind the montage in a film where two people are falling in love or the character is facing an introspection for this big epiphany. When were you making A Glimmer on the Outskirts? Was that before or after the filming of Blaze?
I wrote most of the songs… I wrote about 40 songs between January and March of ’17 after we finished making the movie.
Did you say 40 songs?
About 40, yeah. I write a lot.
So you’re ready to roll into your next two albums?
Oh, yeah– and then some! Luckily, the digital age exists and I can keep track of all these things. I write in clusters of songs. If I write a song, usually about five of them come satelliting that one song. I sent Charlie 22 songs and his deal was, “I’m going to pick the 10, that’s the deal. I’m going to pick the 10,” and I was like, “Totally, that’s great.” I trust him, where he was at, but he actually picked two or three songs that were a little bit older. But most of that stuff is right after we made the movie, and we recorded it in December of 2017– and we were going to release it in 2018, but we all agreed that we didn’t want to promote that record against the movie. We didn’t want to have to do double time or take away from what we had worked on with Blaze. So we decided we’d push it back.
You did include one Blaze Foley song. Was that sort of like an homage?
Well, that song… When I was first kind of like really paying attention to Blaze, there’s a couple of songs that stuck in my head. Obviously, the big ones were at the forefront, but “Sitting by the Road” was always… I don’t know how to explain it… It sounded ancient. The words and it’s very methodical. It’s only two chords and it’s got that weird little hold on the five towards the middle of it and everybody in their lifetime that’s conscious has said like, “What are we doing here? What’s going on here?” And the way that the song sort of did that just felt ancient. It felt like a mantra. So before we even made the movie, I would always be like kind of, “Sitting by the road…”, singin’ to myself.
When we finished the record, I told myself like,” I’ve got to cover this song! I want to lift it up into a different place.” And I mean, gosh, halfway through the movie I had already told Charlie like, “Yo, if we get to work together, I want to record this one and it’s going to be kind of like a New Orleans second line or something, you know?” And it was a tip of my hat too, because from another dimension altogether, Blaze Foley transformed my life in a massive way. I love singing it. I love singing it with the band. I love singing it by myself. I just think it’s a wonderful song.
Do you think that you could have made A Glimmer on the Outskirts… Would you have gone forward without doing the film?
Making a second record? Yeah. My expectations for what’s going to happen with any of this stuff I let go of in my early twenties when I made a record that I was certain was going to break me forward and when it didn’t, it absolutely positively broke my heart. And what I do love to do is to play music. What I do love to do is to write and record music and it makes it a whole lot better when you can make a living at it and people want to come hear it and connect with it. It really does. You learn more and you’re transformed more. But I would do it if [Blaze] didn’t happen. Coming up with the funds and stuff is really hard, but I mean, I would have. I don’t know if I would have made that album. I don’t know that I would’ve written those songs, but I have enough songs that I would certainly have made a second album and tried to discover more things. Making a body of work and completing compositions is what I feel like my job is. So I would have definitely made a second record, but I don’t know that I would have made this one.
You are as of right now, the last time I checked, the vanguard artist for a SexHawkeBlack Records. Can you tell me what you’re looking at coming up down the road with this record label and your relationship with all those fellows involved, your friend Ethan Hawke, CharlieSexton, and Louis Black?
Being involved in a project with the three of them is very exciting because all this stuff that they work on, I care about, and like, and can get behind. I just listened to a couple of new Terry Allen songs that Charlie’s producin’– and holy crap, it’s f—–g amazing! I mean, just amazing. And I’ve been talking to Louis about the multiple projects he’s got goin’…
You said Terry Allen?
Yeah, it’s so good man. It’s gonna knock your socks off. It’s so, so good. And Ethan, right now, is making a movie about (Nikola) Tesla where he’s playing Tesla and then Louis is writin’ a book about his good friend Jonathan Demme who passed away. I just look around and these three individuals, and they’re constantly hustling, constantly working, and constantly making art that I care about! So that’s super exciting. My expectation on what’s going to happen– again, I put that stuff to rest. My intention is to keep working with SexHawkeBlackand and help lift it up and help grow it. It’s a hard thing. The music business is not a very fruitful garden. You have to really, really, hustle, and you’ve got to kinda pick a little section of land to grow things. I want to be a part of this squad with these guys, and I want to hold up my end of the bargain and I wanna put records out and help them find artists.
And who knows what’s going to happen with it? Right now it’s alive and breathing and the record is doing well and we’re doing press like we are with talking with you. And I just went out and played 60+ shows since January. Most of that was solo. My intention is to get my band together that I had at South by Southwest who are all my good friends that I want to be able to like pay, you know? My goal is to get myself in the position to pay a band to go on the road and keep playing. And inside of that, I believe, SexHawkeBlack– at least for my part of it– will benefit. The stuff that they have possibly coming down the pipelines to release is exciting. And the artists that are kind of being attracted is exciting. There’s a lot of gravity with those three individuals. There’s a lot of people that kind of perked up their ears and eyes, you know, “I want to be involved!”
Anybody you can share?
There’s two notions that I cannot talk about, but I can tell you that one of them, when you hear about it, you’ll be like. “Wait– what?” I’ll put it this way, it’s from the past. It’s already happened, but it’s something that’s gonna knock you out, man. I knew it existed when I heard it and heard more about it… It’s very, very exciting. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I should say I should probably say that, but something’s going to happen with these recordings. On top of that, there’s a couple of contemporary artists who are just flirting, you know, wanting to know what’s going on. Everybody understands that this is not a label that can be like, “Oh sure, you wanna make a record? Here’s $40,000, go ahead! It’s what I remember putting records out to be– which is the do-it-yourself thing. People sort of know what they’re doing, there’s a little bit of resources coming through, and then you go on the road and see what happens! That’s where it is right now. And I love all those fellas and I love what they stand for and what they work on. So if we can keep doing it like this, I’d be really into it.
Are you going to have a role or cameo appearance in the new Louvin Brothers biopic?
We’re talking about it, yeah. Originally I was going to, and then the script kind of changed, but we’ll see. I’m working on something in the fall with Ethan… The Good Lord Bird is a book about John Brown, the abolitionist and the siege at Harper’s Ferry. And, again, that role is pretty small. I’m not pursuing the acting thing hard as in I’m going out for auditions, etc. But I’m getting offers and having conversations. The Louvin Brothers thing… I’ve been around the nucleus of it. That thing’s been brewin’ for five, six years. I’m such a huge Louvin fan, I’ve been really rootin’ for Ethan to figure out how to make it work. I love Alessandro [Nivola]. I’ve heard them sing, I’ve watched them do their thing. I just think this is going to be great and if they invite me to participate in it as an actor, I’d be thrilled.