A Burning Desire
If Ambrose Bierce had worn a zoot suit, survived the psychedelic ’60s and spent a half-century penning some singular music, then he might have resembled something like Dan Hicks. While Hicks might not be as much of as a downer as that 19th-century journalist-satirist (Bierce’s plucky motto? “Nothing Matters”), they both share a darkly cerebral sense of humor and an almost prophetic sense of being ahead of their time, which can play out more like a curse than blessing. Before he vanished in Mexico in 1913 at the age of 71, Bierce had helped create literary genres ranging from horror and war fiction to dark comedy, influencing later writers like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut.
Dan Hicks began his career as a folkie and then as a drummer for proto-acid rockers The Charlatans before branching off as a solo artist in 1968 with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. Blending everything from country music and Western swing to gypsy jazz and bluegrass, Hicks and the band traded in their tie-dyes for tailored suits and, over the course of four decades, have issued more than a dozen albums while amassing a fanbase including the likes of Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett and British synth-popper Thomas Dolby, who in 1984 covered Hicks’ “I Scare Myself.” And though Hicks has thus far side-stepped a fate like that of Bierce’s, his own pervasive influence and rogue-turned-scholar vibe has threaded through musical avenues like the “jump revival” of bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers and the roots-obsessed mentality of the genre that’s now known as Americana.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks return to Northeast Florida for their “Holidaze in Hicksville” tour to perform some fan favorites and deliver a few tunes from their 2010 holiday release “Crazy for Christmas.”
Hicks talked to us over the phone from his longtime home in Mill Valley, Calif., about the Christmas season, the benefits of obscurity and run-ins with blues legends.
Folio Weekly: What compelled you to do this holiday tour? Are you a big holiday guy?
Dan Hicks: I wouldn’t say that. [Chuckles.] Well, you know I’ve been doing holiday- and Christmas-themed tours for years. I am in a little jug band that plays around this area locally, and we started back in the ’70s doing this stuff. So since the Hot Licks have started up again the last 10 years or so, we’ve been doing these tunes during the season. It’s not total “wall to wall” Christmas for an hour-and-a-half, but you get the idea, like parodies with a Christmas feel. People would ask me, “Dan, when are you ever going to do a Christmas album?” and we finally did one that came out two years ago.
F.W.: Forty years ago, you kind of created your own style, and now that blend has become what people have started calling Americana. Do you feel justified that you were so ahead of that whole thing, or do you even care?
D.H.: Mmmm … justified … well, I guess you’d have to define what “Americana” means. But there is some kind of satisfaction in knowing that I’m almost in a category now: Americana. When they used to have record bins in the record stores — back when they used to have record stores — I used to be in the “Rock Pop” section, and I guess I still am. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. Someone asked me one time: “What have you learned after all of these years?” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing: I will never have a hit single.” That’s my gross knowledge of everything I’ve learned in life. I’ve tried to stop thinking of how popular I’m not. [In mock indignation:] “Where’s this goddamned audience for me?” [Laughs.]
F.W.: Well, does obscurity pay the bills?
D.H.: Yeah, I still play. I don’t know if I’m obscure as certain people, but I have a good career going. I play some gigs; I get a little songwriting money. There’s some kind of show that Harry Shearer has put together in London that’s gonna be on British TV, and he’s using my song, “Nixon’s the One” because he [Shearer] is playing Nixon. So things are happening.
F.W.: In the early ’60s, people like guitarist John Fahey and Al Wilson [of Canned Heat] used to travel through the South and look for old records and even old blues singers. Did you ever go on any of those kinds of “Grail Quests” when you were younger?
D.H.: You know, I didn’t, but when I went out in 1964 with a friend of mine, and this was when I was still “less than obscure,” and we had a duo and we ended up in New York City. And this was a really neat adventure for a guy who was all of 23. I remember we were in Memphis, and there were these guys who had just kind of found this guy Skip James; and one of them was Fahey. They were kind of “transporting” James through town to keep him out of trouble, I guess. They were taking him to Newport [Folk Festival]. James had been, like, washing dishes for a living, and then these folkie dudes brought him out of retirement. James played at a coffeehouse while we there, and we even stayed at the same house where he stayed while we were there. I had nothing to do with it, but I was kind of in on it, since I was just there experiencing all of that. I was just thinking about Fahey the other day — kinda weird that you brought that up. [Laughs.]
F.W.: You’ve been playing music for 50 years. Do you have any combat wisdom to pass on to up-and-coming musicians?
D.H.: I would say, just learn one thing real good, you know? I thought about that years ago. If you play guitar, violin, tenor sax and autoharp … man, just pick one. [Laughs.]