Luke Dick clicks a file on his computer and swivels around his chair in the converted garage-studio behind his East Nashville home. Andy Warhol’s voice, dispassionately commenting that he’s just eaten a burger, leaps out of the speakers and begins to warp as if a tape machine is being melted. A slinky, single-note guitar riff and throbbing disco-punk groove take over, and a singer howls, “Baby you’re clickbait, sitting underneath my fingers,” amid a flurry of lustful, panting come-ons to our state of constant distraction. In the song’s middle section, it suddenly evokes peak-period Nine Inch Nails with sawtooth keyboard noise and off-kilter harmonies that recall the final vamp of “Closer.”
This is Republican Hair, the new wave-punk band led by 40-year-old Oklahoma native Dick. The group has released a handful of singles and an EP to date, covering such disparate topics as Prince’s untimely death or the threat of war with a sense of humor, empathy and groove. “Clickbait,” like “Fuck a Bomb” or “Nag Champa” before it, is a perfectly suitable dance anthem for our alternately attention-addled and attention-seeking times.
“That’s a recurring theme in Republican Hair: the confusion of the news cycle,” says Dick, between puffs of sweet-smelling tobacco that he continually replenishes in a wooden pipe. “I just fuckin’ hate it. Like, they’re trying to titillate you with, ‘You’ll never guess what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did last night!’ I just refuse to click on a headline like that, but they’re so titillating.”
If the relentless desperation and pull of news in the present moment is a threat to turn our brains to mush, Dick is countering the scourge by keeping his hands full with a diverse series of creative projects. In addition to Republican Hair, which has plans to tour with the Cadillac Three and release its full-length debut later in 2019, Dick is a top-shelf Music Row songwriter who recently celebrated a Number One song with “Burning Man,” a collaboration between Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne that appeared on Bentley’s The Mountain album. Dick is quick to point out the difference in voice between what he does in Republican Hair, which often has a political or existential slant, and his country writing (though Charlie Worsham did cut the band’s giddy “Birthday Suit” for his album The Beginning of Things).
“Republican Hair, you can take as many left turns as you want to. You can have an impressionistic lyric if you want it to be that way,” he says. “In country, there’s a real craft of serving a theme. I feel like I come at the theme a little differently in the way I write songs, but that’s just being a writer, hopefully.”
To that end, Dick’s songs tend to stand out from the generic lyricism and platitudes that frequently find their way on to major Nashville records. He had a hit back in 2016 by tackling bigotry on “Kill a Word,” which Eric Church, with Rhiannon Giddens, took to Number One. “Burning Man” uses the idea of a guy who’s gotten a little older and is learning how to slow down (classic country stuff) but contrasts the desert bacchanal of the Burning Man festival and holy water to illustrate the intensity of his extremes. In Miranda Lambert’s crunchy “Pink Sunglasses,” Dick and co-writers Natalie Hemby and Rodney Clawson elevate accessories to armor, a way to hide your pain from the rest of the world (and look flawless while you do it). More recently, he’s co-authored Kassi Ashton’s delightful “Violins” and Kip Moore’s resilient new single “The Bull.” It’s that singular outlook that’s made Dick such a sought-after and consistent collaborator.
“It wasn’t really until I started being myself in songs — when I say being myself, I mean writing things I really enjoyed writing and saying things I enjoyed saying,” says Dick. “To trust your own intuition, your own aesthetic intuition in a songwriting session, no matter how quirky it may seem at the time…just trust that because it’s the only thing that is working or has worked for me in terms of people being interested in what I’m doing.”
As if these endeavors weren’t enough to keep Dick occupied, he’s also debuting his feature-length documentary Red Dog during South by Southwest in Austin, where Republican Hair also have several shows scheduled. Named for the Oklahoma City strip club where Dick’s mother, a teenaged runaway, worked as an exotic dancer through the early part of his childhood, the film was directed by Dick and Casey Pinkston. It offers an empathetic, unflinching look back at his mother Kim’s life as well as those of her co-workers and the frequently illicit or dangerous things that were going on around them.
“It was a chance to get a bearing on what your mom was like when she was a kid,” says Dick, “and really get into the nitty-gritty of the decision-making process as a parent and as a person who was made to grow up really fast.”
Dick began work on the project around 2012, taking breaks here and there to focus on other parts of his career. He launched a Kickstarter in 2017 and raised nearly $20,000. They hired Casey Pierce as the film’s animator, who gave it a whimsical, comic-book feel. Along with the money raised, word spread about what Dick was doing, and other characters once in his mom’s orbit reached out, like hulking bouncer Tiny, a former Hell’s Angel whose rough exterior belies a good-natured sense of humor.
But it’s Dick’s mother Kim who is the star of the show — funny and irreverent, with a gift for storytelling that makes her instantly relatable.
“My mom may be foulmouthed, but to me she has the moral bearing of a typical American now,” says Dick. “Even though she’s led a wild life, we identify with her right off the bat. It didn’t take any effort to make that happen.”
The film tracks Kim’s life and time on the stage, where she was surrounded by friends (one was named “Nasty Cathy”) and drug dealers alike, through her exit and later work as a dietician. That stretch spans four husbands, including a bar patron who was Dick’s biological father as well as a bartender who’d previously been married to another of the Red Dog dancers and ended up raising Dick through his formative years. But as is the case with any great bit of a storytelling, these characters are complicated — they’ve made bad choices along with the good ones, and some of those consequences are still being felt.
“That’s always been my attraction to characters in general,” says Dick. “Rarely do you find a static character that you can make a movie about. All the characters in Red Dog already have dynamism attached to them. There’s a universal aspect of that being interesting, complicated people. Everybody has something weird about them, and the more weird, or the more you can humanize the oddity, the more interesting it is.”
Dick also composed the score for Red Dog, which he says turned out to provide the biggest emotional release once he discovered his system.
“Really when it hit me cathartically, was taking a scene of my mother talking about something serious [like] her grandmother and how dancing made her feel and whether or not it was right or wrong,” says Dick. “It was just a simple [music] pad, and I chose pads that reminded me of movies I saw when I was a kid — these Eighties synthesizers or whatever that are kind of lush with undertones.”
Dick is also working on a soundtrack for the film with Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, and teases the idea that it might feature a mixture of popular Nashville country stars singing as well as contributions from Republican Hair. “[We will] have a really weird but heartfelt soundtrack to a really weird and heartfelt movie.”
Details about the wide release of Red Dog haven’t been announced just yet, but it’s safe to assume Dick won’t be kicking back and relaxing anytime soon. He’s perpetually in the midst of working on a variety of new projects with his friends.
“It keeps my brain functioning on many cylinders and I don’t get too wrapped up if something fails,” he says. “It’s so hard in general to feel like you have anything fresh to offer the world, but I feel like every day’s a new day and once every couple months I do have something fresh to say.”