When Ben Dickey returned home to his farm in Louisiana after spending months working on Ethan Hawke’s film Blaze, he fell into a depression. “I was still in a Blaze way,” says Dickey, who, after playing the role of Seventies country outsider Blaze Foley in his acting debut, says he began to assume some of Foley’s personal troubles even after the project ended.
“When it was over, I suffered from not knowing how to pull myself out of Blazetown,” he says. “I thought, the thing that I should do is wander. That’s what will make me feel better. If you introduce somebody else’s demons to your own demons and they start talking, watch out.”
It was January 2017, but sitting at home, Dickey ultimately fought the urge to “book a weird Southern tour” and instead began writing songs. Lots of them. Nearly 30, in fact, over the next two months. “I tend to write in clusters,” he says. “When I made Blaze I stopped doing that, which spooked me. So when I corked that channel, a lot of that energy had built up.”
A full year later, Dickey, 41, has released A Glimmer on the Outskirts, the result of those several months of writing in the midst of his post-Blaze funk. Dickey has spent the better part of the past decades in a rotating, nearly endless stream of various bands — country-rock groups, noise-rock bands, old-school rock & roll outfits — but Glimmer is a roots-rock solo effort and the singer’s second solo album. The album, his first since exponentially raising his profile with Hawke’s critically adored film, channels the warmth of Nineties-era Tom Petty. Highlights like “Monstrous Moonshine (Come Back Down)” and “Stranger on a Silver Horse (Be Amazed)” mark some of the most realized songs Dickey has released to date.
The album, completed last year but shelved in favor of promoting his film debut last fall, was produced by legendary Austin guitarist and Blaze co-star Charlie Sexton, who gave Dickey a strict plan for the project.
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“This is what we’re gonna do,” Sexton told Dickey early on. “Send me 20 songs, I’ll pick 10, and we can arm wrestle over one.”
For Dickey, having a proper producer felt like a huge luxury. The album is meticulously arranged, with spacious rock and folk arrangements that center Dickey’s honeyed vocals. “It’s unified, big time,” as he puts it. A Glimmer on the Outskirts marks a large professional step forward for Dickey, who had recorded his last album (2016’s Sexy Birds and Salt Water Classics) on days off from his job as a sous-chef at the Philadelphia live-music venue and gastropub Johnny Brenda’s.
“Making that record was a Hail Mary for my well-being,” he says of his 2016 solo debut. “My band had broken up. I was deranged about that. I was working in the kitchen 80 hours a week. My brain was melting. I needed to have something.”
It can be hard to follow the chronology of the many musical lives of Ben Dickey, who constantly references his countless bands and short-lived previous musical selves in conversation: Amen Booze Roster, Blood Feathers, Shake Ray Turbine, to name a few. Dickey came of age in the punk world of his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. “I played Marshall amps and roared and wanted to be Fugazi.”
Dickey would eventually get the slightest taste of his dream with Shake Ray Turbine, his Little Rock band, when his band opened for Fugazi in their final show. “We were good, our records were good, we had been reviewed, we’ve played with Fugazi, I thought, ‘Obviously, we’re gonna keep going up,’” says Dickey. “But it didn’t work.”
It was a lesson Dickey would have to relearn time and time again. The Blood Feathers, his Philly band, released three locally acclaimed records and played with bands like the Walkmen and Guided by Voices. He moved on from the group after realizing his goals were different from those of his bandmates. “The truth is, it ain’t easy,” he says. “People have kids, big jobs.”
For someone who’s spent most of his adult life in rock bands, Dickey doesn’t view his recent turn toward more roots-based music as any sort of new phase. Ever since he was a teenager, he idolized the acoustic blues of Mississippi John Hurt, and has performed as an acoustic singer-songwriter throughout various stages of his career. “So when the whole Blaze thing happened,” he says, “I was like, ‘Good, I’m prepared for this.’”
Spending time speaking with Dickey, it’s hard not to be struck by how similar his homespun speech patterns and cerebral philosophies are to those of the Foley he portrayed in Hawke’s film. He describes a difficult period in his life after a breakup in his early twenties by saying, “I had the blues proper.” Even Dickey’s reason for why he wasn’t hungry on a recent afternoon in New York sounded like it could have been a Foleyism: “Truth is, I just went to go have bread and butter with some friends at some Frenchy joint in Brooklyn. Beautiful bread. Had to lean on it.”
At the moment, Dickey — who will perform a string of shows at South by Southwest in Austin this week — is ready to move on from his career-establishing film and get back to recording some of the songs he’s been writing. “I have 100-plus songs written down, 40 of which I’m ready to do something about ASAP,” he says. After his stunning turn in Blaze, he’s already begun to receive a slew of audition requests and offers, but for the moment, he’s asked his team to not even show him any screenplays or scripts, for fear he may be tempted.
But even as he thinks about his new album (which includes a cover of Foley’s “Sitting by the Road”), he can’t escape the pull of the man whose life has permanently changed his own the past few years.
Dickey is talking about his new song “Monstrous Moonshine,” a song, influenced in part by his nephew, that he describes as being about “the hope of someone looking out for you.” As he starts reciting a few of the song’s lyrics, he stops and smiles. “It’s funny,” he says, “because there’s a line in that song: ‘Be the crazy blazing moon. I wrote that in 2015,” he says, two years before he was ever asked to play Blaze Foley in a movie. “Music can do that sometimes.”