For a guy whose career has evolved more by serendipity than design, Ben Dickey’s professional
journey has turned into one heckuva ride. It’s not every day an obscure musician’s famous actor/
director friend hands him the lead in a passion-project indie film, and he not only winds up
sharing the screen with one of his musical heroes, he also wins a Sundance Film Festival Special
Jury Prize for Dramatic Achievement in Acting — and a Variety magazine “for your
consideration” plug for a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Dickey’s acting debut in Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s biopic about doomed Texas singer-songwriter
Blaze Foley, has already led to more roles, including their pairing as bounty hunters in The Kid, a
western directed by Vincent D’Onofrio. But just as exciting, as far as Dickey’s concerned, is the
opportunity it provided to record with that musical hero, longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie
Sexton (who played Blaze’s other troubled Texas songwriting legend, Townes Van Zandt). After
they did the film’s original cast recording (on Light in the Attic Records), Sexton produced
Dickey’s solo album, A Glimmer on the Outskirts. That inspired Sexton, Hawke and Blaze
executive producer Louis Black to form SexHawkeBlack Records, a new Austin-based imprint
under the umbrella of Nashville’s Dualtone Records. Dickey’s March 7, 2019 release is the
It’s hardly Dickey’s first recording foray, however. In fact, he says, he preferred the idea of
forming a label to shopping for one because he’d been signed before — and still bears scars from
watching the dream morph into a momentum-sucking nightmare. But SexHawkeBlack president
Erika Pinktipps happens to be friends with Dualtone’s founder; that connection quickly turned
into an actual alliance. “We’re all doing this together,” Dickey says, “[it’s] a group of people who
all care about each other and have similar artistic arrows pointed in the same direction.”
Dickey was 10 when his artistic arrow started pointing toward music; that’s when his grandfather
handed down his 1935 Gibson L-30 archtop. “He was a magical fellow, and his guitar is, too,”
Dickey says. “So I wanted to be magic, too.”
Within a year, his grandfather was gone. The magic, fortunately, stayed. But conjuring it wasn’t
always easy for a kid growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, far from his dad — a college football
star who’d moved to Georgia after the parental split, when Dickey was 4. Ten years later,
Dickey’s mother left, too — following her friend and boss, Bill Clinton, from the Arkansas
Governor’s Mansion to the White House. Dickey moved into his grandmother’s basement — and
became one more angry, disaffected teenage rocker.
He formed his first “real” band, Shake Ray Turbine, at 16, made his first record at 17 and began
touring at 18, ditching Little Rock Central High (most famous students: the Little Rock Nine) for
an $850 Ford van. When the founder of their D.I.Y. label, File 13 Records, headed to
Philadelphia for college, they followed.
Dickey wound up staying for 17 years, becoming a chef, falling in love and making music, first
with Amen Booze Rooster (the band that got signed, then shafted), then with Blood Feathers.
That band recorded three albums, including one created over “a magical rock ‘n’ roll summer” at
a Nova Scotia home Hawke owns. (Hawke’s wife and Dickey’s “sweetheart,” artist Beth
Blofson, have been besties since childhood.) Several labels and a top management agency
courted them, but some members’ changing priorities and Dickey’s label trauma scotched
potential deals. Still, when Blood Feathers fractured, he was heartbroken. It was time for another
Once again, a music connection provided it. The band’s former manager had returned to north
Louisiana to run his dad’s cotton farm, and offered Dickey and Blofson a vacant house on the
rural property. They’ve been frolicking in that cotton since 2014.
Before leaving Philly, however, Dickey devoted 8½ months of Mondays (most chefs’ lone day
off) to recording Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics, his first solo album. Former Arkansas Times
arts editor Robert Bell called it “impeccable rock ‘n’ roll … which effortlessly melds Dylan/Petty
singer-songwriter tunes and a touch of T. Rex-y sheen with a peppering of country-blues guitarpicking of the first order.”
Classics took Dickey in a folkier direction, which continues with A Glimmer on the Outskirts.
With a broad, low-edged tenor, this 6-foot, 5-inch linebacker’s son sometimes sounds remarkably
like Dylan. But while he claims to be influenced by all musical forms, including “mockingbird
word, Marshall feedback stack, tap-dance prance, orbital odes and Dinah the dog” (a partial list),
Dickey says he’s most attracted to cats like jump bluesmen Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker
and especially, the phrasing of Piedmont/ragtime bluesman Blind Willie McTell.
“I’ve been doin’ an impersonation of him forever,” Dickey claims. “He takes joy in certain
words, and the listener likes that. And I like that.”
Of his own style, he says, “I reckon I play rock ‘n’ roll — emphasis on the roll.”
“The roll” is about musicality and rhythm, he explains. It’s the unforced ease of big-band swing,
or the way late guitarist Hubert Sumlin played before or after the beat, creating another rhythmic
pattern. “Chuck Berry doing the first 16 bars of ‘Maybelline’ is a microinjection of what I
consider rock ‘n’ roll. When I think of rock ‘n’ roll, I think of that; I think of the Stones; I think
of the Beatles’ ‘I Feel Fine.’”
The roll is all over A Glimmer on the Outskirts, most of which was written over a few days after
Blaze wrapped, except for “Eloise” and his easygoing, JJ Cale-like cover of Foley’s “Sittin’ By
“When I say wrote, I mean they just came,” Dickey clarifies. “They usually come in clusters.”
That helps explain their thematic connection; the album, he says, is an exploration of hope.
“Hope comes in different ways, and in little doses, like when you're on the freeway and you’re
hungry, and you see a sign for food,” he says. “It also comes when you’re chest deep in
quicksand and you see someone coming with a rope.”
In “Stranger on a Silver Horse (Be Amazed),” it comes “on the outskirts of town, like A Fistful of
Dollars; a fixer or something.” In “Sing that One to Me,” hope takes the form of an adventure.
Its lyrics directly mention that fixer, who appears again as Dickey explains the album title “refers
to finding or remembering hope when all is lost, but there’s a light on the edge of town, or the
edge of the galaxy. A fixer on the way.”
That’s not necessarily a divine metaphor, however. Celestial citations fill Dickey’s lyrics and
conversation, but they’re mainly astronomical, not biblical (though he does debate what’s heaven
and what’s hell in “I Think It’s All Different”). His favorite memory involves watching the
Orionids meteor shower with his family when he was 3, and he admits, “My version of counting
sheep is reading how fast Jupiter is expanding and despanding through the day.”
He’s got a thing for prime numbers and has fantasized about working for NASA, but can’t
imagine not making music. “That’s how I relate to the world,” he says. “I've always been drawn
Eventually, he figured out why.
“What happens when you go to a show? You form a relationship with an artist,” he notes.
Despite the uncertainties and absurdities of the troubadour life, Dickey needs that connection —
“this weird hour of time where you share with a group of people” — to satisfy his soul.
Something else he’s figured out: the benefits of trust. After finally agreeing to let Hawke put him
onscreen, Dickey discovered he loves acting. “It’s very musical,” he says, “so it feels natural.”
He also agreed to let Sexton choose the album’s songs, and players: drummer Conrad Choucroun,
bassist John Michael Shoepf, pedal steel player Mike Hardwick and keyboardist, pianist and
Mellotron player Bukka Allen. (Dickey and Sexton both play guitar and sing; Blofson sings
backing vocals and Emily Galusha whistles on “The Man with the Hammer.”)
Dickey is thrilled with the results. He’s giddy about life in general right now. It took a while for
him to find his script, so to speak, but he sums up the experiences between getting his
grandfather’s guitar and his current pursuits with a perfect quote from Blaze: “You might not get
what you go after, but you do get what you wouldn't have got, if you hadn't gone after what you