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    Cracker was an Americana band nearly two decades before the term ever existed. Now artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are making classic albums and riding the wave of Alt-Country cool, but Cracker was doing it when Nirvana was still on the radio, when banjo and steel guitars existed nowhere outside your grandfather’s record collection. Johnny Hickman and David Lowery have been the creative partnership that has driven the band from the beginning. Their new double album “Berkley to Bakersfield” was recently released with one disc a collection of rock songs and the other a collection of country songs. Cracker is currently on tour supporting the album and will be performing at Headliners Music Hall on July 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are still available for $20.  Before the show, founding band member, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Johnny Hickman took some time to do an interview with Louisville.com.

    Louisville.com:  In 25 years in the industry, what’s it been like to watch the music industry change?


    JH:  Very interesting, pros and cons galore. The top cons currently are the streaming service corporations ripping artists off and making millions while they pay the musicians, the actual content creators, practically nothing. That hurts all recording musicians famous or not. Thankfully the Crumbs (self-dubbed Cracker fans worldwide) know that to keep going we have to generate income through music sales to afford to stay on the road, and they are more than happy to support us. Basically, to succeed and stay in the game now, artists have to be pretty technology savvy. You can do that, stay true to your art, self-promote it and have immense fun at the same time. We’re living proof. 

    Louisville.com:  Has music evolved or devolved in those two and a half decades?


    JH:  Both I believe. The think tanks and methods of finding, packaging and selling the overproduced, formulaic banal pop and country that dominates radio now have always been around, they’ve just gotten more pro with technology. On the bright side, this has paved the way for a new generation of true indie artists that bypass that bullshit scrutiny altogether and exist in their own universe. It’s now possible for a band to build a career relying solely on social media, themselves and their fans. 

    Louisville.com:  Why do you think Cracker has managed to survive?


    JH:  I think largely by simply staying the course we set ourselves on from the start. David and I have always written and recorded music for ourselves first. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way; I think if you pander, you lose. After knowing each other for 10 years before we started writing and playing together, we’d already learned that democracy rarely works in a band, so we loosely patterned ourselves after our heroes like the Rolling Stones or any number of bands with one or two guys making the decisions at the center. You establish a core of the main songwriters and gather talented people around you. It’s a model that’s worked for us for 24 years, and it’s more common than most people think. 

    Louisville.com:  What do you think 1993 Cracker would think of 2015 Cracker?


    JH: Ha ha…good question. I think we’d be a little surprised to still be here writing good music, still reinventing ourselves a little with every album, touring and still gaining new fans.

      

    Louisville.com:  What is it about your relationship with David Lowery that has allowed you to work so well together for so long?


    JH:  At the top of the list would be the songs we make. I can tell you that personally, I feel anxious every time we decide to start making a new album, but every time I suspend my doubts, and we just start in. He’s one of the best songwriters of his generation in my opinion and I’m honored to write songs with him. He’s never stopped. I work to come up with guitar riffs and melodies that David can build these incredible stories around, or he’ll have a song nearly done that I frame with a riff or maybe come up with the bridge, no real set pattern. He’s one of the rare writers who can consistently create these very believable, compelling characters...the new double disc Berkeley to Bakersfield is full of them. I write Cracker lyrics and complete songs too and am always honored that he sings them, but the best songs are written by two people in my opinion no matter if it’s 50/50 or one writer finds the small bit that completes a song. David wrote one of our most currently popular songs “California Country Boy” and invited me to sing it. The reverse of “Mister Wrong” from our first record or "Friends” from the last one, which David sang with Patterson Hood from Drive By Truckers. Having these two icons of alt-country rock duetting on a song I wrote was pretty great.  

    Louisville.com:  Even from the outset, when Alternative and Grunge were the thing, you all were one of the few that managed to incorporate a country influence into rock. How did you all manage to make it cool when it hadn’t been for a long time?


    JH: Thank you. Having grown up as military kids with dads stationed at air bases across the south and in rural California, we heard a lot of country music. Of course it was a lot different than it is now. It was Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and later Dwight Yoakum and other greats back then, not the formulaic crap you hear now. It was as big an influence to David and me as punk rock or British rock or soul music. When we started writing together, country was just naturally part of the Cracker stew. It confounded our record label a bit, but they learned to trust us. This was all before the terms “alt-country” or “Americana” even existed. There were only a few other bands in the early '90s mixing country sounds in like we were. Uncle Tupelo, The Meat Puppets, Jason and The Scorchers, Dwight Yoakum come to mind, just a few others.


    Louisville.com:  Why now did it seem like a good time to separate those influences to two separate discs when you have spent so long incorporating them?


    JH: It just seemed like a cool, fun idea. David suggested getting in touch with Davey Faragher and Michael Urbano again…our bass player and drummer from “Kerosene Hat.”  We very quickly wrote and recorded the  rock / punk / soul “Berkeley” disc with them, and it was a sheer joy. For the “Bakersfield” disc we almost exclusively used players from Athens Georgia where David has lived for a while now. It worked perfectly and set the scene for the laid-back country songs, most of which David wrote this time around. 

    Louisville.com:  “Torches and Pitchforks”, “March of the Billionaires”, “Life in the Big City” all seem to take a pretty rigid political stance, what inspired those?


    JH:  David obviously has no qualms about using the current political state of the world as a backdrop and as inspiration when he feels like it. Recording it in Berkeley definitely had an impact on those songs with its long history of progressive and radical politics mirrored by the various music scenes there. David’s always been a pretty bold, outspoken person, and his songs reflect that. I think he manages to do it with aplomb because he’s a great songwriter and avoids being too overt. He gets his point across through his characters with great results in my opinion. “March of the Billionaires” is a good example of how we work together. I came up with that “na na na na” part when we were just jamming around and the guitar riff which he also used for part of his verse vocal melody.  When he came back in, almost immediately, with it finished with the title and those lyrics, I was floored. I remember thinking "THIS is why I work with this guy!" Amazing. 

    Louisville.com:  And “Torches and Pitchforks” could have easily fit on the country tinged Berkley disc. Why did you all choose to place it on the rocked up Berkley disc?


    JH: I agree. We sort of consider that one the song that ties the two discs together. It has this classic, timeless union battle stance that perfectly reflects the way the streaming corporations are ripping songwriters off, and David has no problem with people interpreting it that way. He sometimes opens the live shows singing “Torches” solo acoustic, and it’s pretty grand. I’m in the wings about to join him and it gives me chills every time. 

    Louisville.com:  “King of Bakersfield” makes a very vivid character. Is it based on anyone specific?


    JH: No, he’s just yet another character that David created and let speak as he puts it. We grew up in Southern and Eastern California, and the guy in the song is very believable. I played around with country bands up in the Bakersfield area just before we started Cracker together, and there are most certainly characters like this guy….happily living in two worlds. He’s kinda the antithesis of the Bakersfield character I used in “Mister Wrong” from the first album. That guy was an amalgam of these likable f*ck up guys I met when I was up there just before we made the first record. The guy in “King of Bakersfield” really does rule his own little world, and he’s very satisfied. David sings it like he’s putting on a tailor made cowboy hat. I love it. 

    Louisville.com:  It feels like the theme changes a great deal between the Berkley disc and the Bakersfield disc. Is that on account of the genre shift or personal shifts?


    JH:  Definitely both of those factors as well as physically being in both areas at various times. We recorded the Berkeley disc at Michael’s Urbano’s studio there. We were pretty certain we could make another great rock record with Davey and Michael. The “Kerosene Hat” chemistry kicked right back in with those guys. They’re both amazing players who’ve done a lot of studio and live work both separately and together outside of Cracker. None of our Georgia players came from Bakersfield but they have the skills to get that sound. It’s great touring with them now because they can definitely kill it on the rock songs too. 

    Louisville.com:  “Where Have Those Days Gone” feels like a spiritual sequel to “Euro-Trash Girl,” where in the latter was a guy outgrowing youthful irresponsibility, and the former seems like a middle-aged guy looking back wistfully on his young folly. Is that a fair parallel?


    JH: Nice observation. Both songs draw a little bit from personal experience, especially “Where Have Those Days Gone?” David drew at least parts of those verses from things he actually went through. “Eurotrash Girl” as well, but really with that one we were just having fun putting that guy through things we’d imagined, heard of and/or experienced. I love the waitress stepmother cutting the poor guy off on the phone verse that David came up with. I think I came up with his being jailed, the whole scene with the sergeant and all after David told me about losing his passport over there once with Camper Van Beethoven. David wasn’t arrested and actually found his passport, but we kind of imagined the worst for the guy in the song. It was fun. I think we were in a shitty motel in New Jersey. 

    Louisville.com: Which songs are the most fun to play live?


    JH: That changes a lot. We’ll get tired of playing some of them and hang ‘em up for a year or three, bring them back when it feels good or we have the right players to really do them well live. We always play our big radio songs because they put us on the map. I think bands who consider themselves too cool to play their hits if they are lucky enough to have them are narcissistic jerks. We change the sets often because it’s more fun for us and the fans say the same all the time, but you’re of course gonna hear “Teen Angst” “Low” and usually “Eurotrash Girl” and “Get Off This”. 

     

     

    Photos provided by Cracker's management, credit: Bradford Jones.

    Brent Owen's picture

    About Brent Owen

    Born and raised in Louisville, I have lived here most of my life (except during a short furlough, when I, lovelorn and naive, followed a girl to Baton Rouge). My roots are here, my family, my friends, and my life are all here. I work primarily as a free-lance writer for a few local and regional publications. I have also written two books (one a memoir, the other a novel) that barring some divine intervention, will probably never see the light of day. I find myself deeply ingrained in the local bar scene, or perhaps better said, I often indulge in the local drinking culture. I love music, movies, comedy, and really just about any other live performance art.

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