This Ain't Nashville: Cracker's Short Trip From 'Berkeley to Bakersfield'

“Walking down the street in San Francisco just the other day/ Wondering what happened to the freaks and the hippies and the punks/ Everybody‘s squeaky clean, they all look and act and dress the same” — Cracker, “El Cerrito”

While Cracker’s David Lowery tends to be highly visible and makes more headlines for his public political leanings, longtime co-conspirator Johnny Hickman does his fair share of heavy lifting in the band the two high-school friends started in Southern California 20 years ago when their fathers served at the same Air Force base. Hickman and Lowery come to town Friday to play the Studio at Warehouse Live in support of late-2014 double album Berkeley to Bakersfield.

The two discs are divided by genre. Berkeley is typical Cracker: big, guitar-driven rock with plenty of surly political commentary on tunes like “Torches and Pitchforks,” where Lowery warns the wealthy and their lackeys “we will fight you.” “March of the Billionaires” continues the theme as Lowery mocks the false ideology behind the philosophy of those in the American One Percent and their destruction of the American dream. Lowery also launches a shower of hilarious mockery and invective on the techies who have homogenized San Francisco in “El Cerrito.” The final track, the radio single “Waited All My Life,” is something of a sonic departure, leading off with a Steve Cropper-ish riff by Hickman and more than a bit of Stax attitude.

Disc 2, Bakersfield, is a masterful set of twangers but, typical of Lowery and his writing partners, it’s the fine print that needs close attention because the real picture is in the details of songs like the seemingly harmless but murky “Almond Grove” or even truly pleasant, bright love songs like “When You Come Down.”

“Part of what we do has been twangy since day one,” says Hickman, explaining how the album took he and Lowery back to their earliest musical days in high school.

“It was the punk glory days in California so we were surrounded by everything that went with that whole scene — mohawks, blue hair, piercings, all that," he says. "But even though David and I liked all that and were a part of it to some extent, we also liked to sneak off and listen to Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner, Waylon, hardcore country stuff like that. So he and I have always been open to country music whenever it works for a particular song. The twangy side has always been part of us.”

With the new disc in mind, we probed Hickman as to what Friday's set list might contain vis a vis the new album.

“What set list?” Hickman cracks. “Man, honestly we don’t give it a lot of thought. We’ve been at this long enough to know our fans will want to hear the radio hits like “Low” or “Eurotrash Girl,” so we’ll play those almost every show. But our fans have always been pretty open-minded about new material, so I’m sure we’ll play some tunes off both discs, I just don’t have any idea which ones yet. But we’re nothing without that great fan base we have and we know it, so we aren’t a band that denies them what they paid good money to hear, although we try to make it interesting and different every night.”

Fair enough. But what were these guys thinking when they put out a double disc with two entirely different genres?

“The Berkeley disc is sort of the classic Cracker lineup,” Hickman explains, “Michael Urbano on drums, Davey Farragher on bass, David and I. We were going for all the old East Bay musical influences: punk, garage, etc. The sessions for that disc took less than a week, they were just crazy quick and fun. You’ve got four super Type A personalities in close proximity, so the ideas are bouncing around at incredible speed.”

“For the Bakersfield sessions, we just had a great crew of Athens-based young guys,” Hickman explains. “Davey and Michael have other commitments, so since these other players were on the Bakersfield sessions it made sense to use the Athens crew on this tour.”

He name-checks ace steel player Matt “Pistol” Stoessel and Deer Tick pianist Robby Crowell.

“They’re both such amazing young players," Hickman says. "Pistol could play with straight country acts like Merle Haggard, but he can also improvise crazy, way-cool solos. People are going dig him being along.”

In fact, on one steel guitar solo in the jaunty “King of Bakersfield,” Stoessel begins his solo and Lowery can be heard saying, “Go on, play it weird, this ain’t Nashville.”

“That was such a spontaneous moment,” Hickman laughs, “we just thought why not leave it on there. I’m glad we did.”

Hickman notes it took the band longer to catch on in Texas than in many other locales.

“We’d come through Texas and wonder what we were doing wrong,” Hickman laughs. “We really couldn’t figure out how to get over. Then Jim Heath of Reverend Horton Heat heard us and approached us about going out as a co-headliner with him on a Texas tour. That’s when people got it for the first time. Texas really opened up for us after that. The next time we came through on our own, three times as many people came as before.”

Hickman lives in Denver while Lowery commutes between Richmond, Va. and Athens, Ga., where he teaches a music-business course at University of Georgia and his wife runs the famous roots venue, the 40 Watt Club, so the writing process is a bit scattered.

“Several of these songs were just built up from grooves or riffs I came up with. Like “March of the Billionaires,” I had the beat and the riff for that and David put together a brilliant lyric for it. He’s really good at hearing my musical things and coming up with these amazing stories. It’s uncanny, really, how the man’s mind works. He’s always telling me to keep feeding him ideas to flesh out, and it’s worked really well for us.”

While Lowery has his classes and his political work to take his mind off the music business, Hickman says he’s more a 24/7 music guy.

“When I’m not out with Cracker, I’ve got lots of stuff going on here in Denver,” he says. “I’ve got a straight-up country band called the Hickman-Dalton Gang and I produce some bands. I just finished producing an album by these young hotshots from Denver called the Yawpers that’s being put out on Bloodshot Records. So basically, I’ve got music going on pretty much all the time.”

Cracker performs with special guests Whiskey Gentry and Not In the Face Friday night at Warehouse Live's Studio room. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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William Michael Smith