When Ben Dickey left Philadelphia in 2014, he was ~in a bad way.
Blood Feathers, the rock band he cofronted with Drew Mills, had broken up after releasing Curse & Praise in 2006 and Goodness Gracious in 2010, two superb albums that never found a wide audience.
The songwriter’s job as chef at Johnny Brenda’s, the Fishtown gastropub and music venue he helped open in 2006, had become all-consuming. After a close friend and coworker was killed in bicycle accident, Dickey was reeling, suffering “some kind of breakdown.”
The Arkansas native had to get away. Recording a solo album before he left Philly as a calling card, he headed back down South. Settling in a tiny northwest Louisiana town where he and his visual artist partner, Beth Blofson, are two of three total residents, he aimed to get his creative life back in balance.
Dickey is touring in support of Glimmer on the Outskirts (Sex Hawke Black ***), his fine new solo album produced by Austin guitar ace Charlie Sexton that earned him the artist to watch distinction from Philly radio station WXPN-FM (88.5) this month.
And, oh, yeah, Dickey is also coming back to town a movie star. The 6-foot-5 troubadour made his feature film debut in the title role in the 2018 impressionistic biopic Blaze.
The movie tells the story of revered songwriter Blaze Foley, who died in 1989 under mysterious circumstances. Foley’s songs have been covered by Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine, and his reputation was burnished by “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams’ song on her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Dickey’s quietly commanding performance — all the more impressive coming from a first time actor — earned him praise. (The movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Google Play and comes out on DVD on May 7.)
Blaze has also given Dickey a platform to play his own music. “The project opened a giant conduit for me to express myself and be seen,” Dickey said last week from Austin, Texas, where he was set to hit the road after doing a dozen-plus shows at the SXSW music festival. “I owe that to Ethan, and to Blaze.”
Ethan is Ethan Hawke, the actor and filmmaker who directed and cowrote Blaze and who has been a supporter of Dickey’s for more than a decade.
Hawke, who won an Independent Spirit award for his role as a tormented priest in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and who played a real-life music star in Born to be Blue, the 2015 Chet Baker biopic, became friends with Dickey through his wife, Ryan Shawhughes. She went to elementary school with Blofson, who was Blaze’s art director.
An ardent Blood Feathers fan who lent the band his house in Nova Scotia to record Goodness Gracious, Hawke has been encouraging Dickey for years to act. He finally convinced him with Blaze, a project that grew out of their mutual admiration for the music, spurred by John Prine’s covering Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” on his 2005 album Fair & Square.
Prine’s version sent Dickey down a Foley rabbit hole. “I reckon myself a musical archaeologist,” he said. “And the more I listened, the more I loved his music. The power of that simplicity.
"I realized how much we had in common. He’s from Arkansas, I’m from Arkansas. He moved and spent some time in Georgia, and so did I. There are friends inside our families that know one another. All these eerie confluences. And then Sybil and I became great friends.”
Sybil is Sybil Rosen, author of Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley, which provided the template for Hawke’s movie. She’s played by Alia Shawkat, and Rosen plays her own mother.
“She and I became super-close,” says Dickey. “And inside of that friendship I gave myself permission to not question anything I was doing. The only thing I was hyper-focused on was taking care of Blaze’s music. I didn’t want to do an impression of Blaze. I wanted to stand where he stood and stand what he stood for.”
Still, Dickey admits he found the idea of acting “terrifying.” And as far as Hawke was concerned, that was the appropriate attitude.
“If he wasn’t terrified, he would have been an a-,” Hawke says with a laugh. “I was taking a huge risk on him.”
But Hawke had abundant faith. “When I first told him he should play Blaze, he thought I was kidding.”
But Hawke, who also got an empathetic performance from Sexton as Van Zandt, says, “The separation of the arts is pretty arbitrary. You watch Ben on stage and he’s a performer. He hypnotizes people. It’s a lever you can move and push the river in a different direction. Forget singing for a bit: Just memorize these lines and think about what they mean to you the same way you think about what that song means to you.
“And, besides, I wasn’t asking him to play Albert Einstein. If Daniel Day-Lewis was cast in this role, it would take him seven to 10 years to prepare so he could know as much about music as Ben already knows.”
Dickey will play a small role in The Good Lord Bird, the forthcoming Showtime TV series adaption of Lambertville author James McBride’s novel about John Brown and the 19th-century abolitionist movement; Hawke will star and executive-produce. Dickey aims to approach acting with the same discipline and creativity that he brought to the kitchen and concert stage.
He saw that same discipline reflected in William Reed and Paul Kimport, his former bosses at Johnny Brenda’s. He praised them for “the way they look at the world. That’s the way I look at music.
“There’s a paramilitary element of discipline in making sure the technique is there. But at the same time, you’re on an adventure, you’re trying to express yourself. You’re trying to turn people on and make them happy. It’s like running a band. There’s harmony involved, and hard work.”
Dickey “fell in love with Philadelphia" after following musical friends to the city in search of affordable housing in 1997. He worked in restaurants and played in bands and shot hoops on South Philly playgrounds as he got his big-city musical and culinary education.
Blaze has turned Dickey into an ambassador for Foley, a responsibility he takes seriously. “Some people who are like true-blue Austinites, people who knew Blaze, come up to me and treat me like a proxy for someone they really love.” Along with nine original songs, the slow-burning Glimmer, which bears the influence of Bob Dylan, includes a frisky cover of Foley’s philosophical “Sitting By the Road.”
The association with Foley has also given Dickey the opportunity to get the attention of roots music and rock-and-roll fans that the Blood Feathers were never able to reach.
“I thought it was really important that Ben record some new music and not get sucked into playing Blaze Foley covers the rest of his life," Hawke says. "He’s a serious musician in his own right.”
To aid in that pursuit, Hawke cofounded the SexHawkeBlack label imprint of Nashville record company Dualtone. Glimmer is the first release from the venture of Sexton, Hawke, and Austin Chronicle and SXSW Film Festival founder Louis Black. The goal, Hawke says, is to help Glimmer find an audience, and then “support other unsung artists, the Blaze Foleys that are out there that are still alive.”
Forming an intimate relationship with Foley’s spirit was a “psychedelic” experience, Dickey says, that made him a better musician. “My songs are coming out more fully formed now."
Most of the tunes on Glimmer, like the road-trip escape of “Sing That One to Me” and the Nick Lowe-worthy “Eloise,” were written after filming was over, then recorded with Sexton in an Austin studio that was formerly the workplace of Willie Nelson.
“Usually, I write songs in clusters of six or seven,” Dickey says. “But I forced myself to stop when I made Blaze. I didn’t want to have the way I normally function take over the front seat of the car. And then when I stopped making the movie, it was like I had all these dragonflies at my window, and when I rolled it down, they just flew in.”