An Interview with Dan Hicks
By Toni A. Brown
While in New York City for an appearance at the Bottom Line, legendary singer/songwriter Dan Hicks spent much of his free time doing interviews. His shows were taped for broadcast by CNN. Hicks was touring in support of a new live album (recorded at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles), his first release in 17 years, and he discussed plans for a follow-up studio album.
Hicks has been touring these past years without product to tout, and his avid audience never asked much of him. Their interest was only in seeing him do what he does best—perform a song with a keen sense of timing, mixing a classical-swing style with a quick wit and incisive turn of phrase. His new release, Shootin’ Straight, is gravy for those long-time fans.
Media attention has been overwhelming positive, almost a homecoming of sorts for this artist. Rest assured that Hicks hasn’t changed his style to fit American trends—in many ways, we have finally caught up to where he left us 17 years ago.
You’re a dichotomy. You want people to take you seriously, but you write funny songs. Do you ever write seriously?
Hicks: Well, yeah. I don’t want to be a clown. I’m not like Ed Wynn.
No, there’s a wit, not a clownishness to your style.
Hicks: It’s more like kind of smiling than a belly laugh. I write some serious tunes, but I think on the stuff that’s more humorous. I’m more natural. I lean towards it, and it’s usually more fun to do. (Laughter)
Do you find that the humor in your songs, the older songs especially, have translated to the younger and newer audiences? Do you think humor transcends time?
Hicks: I think it does, and it kind of surprises me. Yeah, I think it could be timeless. Sometimes I think, “I wrote this song 20, 30 years ago, and the crowd just laughed at that lyric,” especially like “NO Shakin’ Mama.” There’s a line in there about getting married and having a bunch of little jerks. People are still laughing at that. And they laugh at other stuff, words in “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” or even some of the really old ones. I kinda think in the back of my mind, “Haven’t you guys heard this before?” (Laughter) I guess it’s kind of the proof is in the pudding. You know, it borders on cornball. Maybe it’s the delivery or something—the moment. It still goes over. People still think the stuff is humorous. Like those two songs are a couple of the first ones I ever did.
You’ve said you were influenced by the Big Bands. Who were some of your influences?
Hicks: My appreciation came late in high school or junior high, really, and I was a Big Band fan, just jazz. I was in a high school dance band, and we played a lot of Big Band stuff. I played drums, and I liked Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck and that kind of smaller stuff. I liked Les Brown. It’s hard to remember, really. I just remember a kind of jazz thing before then. My parents were country western fans, so that was on the radio. It would be a country western station going. Actually, I didn’t mind. I didn’t know any better to mind. We would see some live shows, too, at Knotts Berry Farm.
You’ve been compared a lot to Bob Wills, Django Rheinhardt…
Hicks: Well, there were definitely a couple of people I liked. I remember I bought my dad a Bob Wills 78 in high school. I always liked western swing, the sound, ‘cause it kind of combines the country and the jazz. I always liked that.
When you started playing with the Charlatans, you played drums. When did you pick up the guitar?
Hicks: When I was about 20, I guess. My friend in Santa Rosa went off to college, and he came back and he had a guitar and he was learning folk tunes. So I developed an interest right then. I always sort of sang a little bit even behind the drums at my gigs. I mean, sort of, just a little, not a lot, just as one of the boys in the band. I started learning fiddle tunes and that sort of thing. Got interested in that and just started working it up slow and got going with it. I guess I wrote my first song, maybe when I was 21 or so, and sort of eased into that songwriting thing. I was more or less self-taught. And I started appearing. I would do a duo with this guy… and then I expanded. It was kind of like an always happening thing. I would work around the Bay Area working different places as a solo, single.
You lived at Haight & Ashbury?
Hicks: Oh, yeah.
Do you still get asked much about your days with the Charlatans?
Hicks: Well, yeah. Especially if that’s the subject.
With our readers, that’s of interest, but we’ve covered that extensively in the past. Let’s be more current, like what you’re doing now. You haven’t done anything as far as recording in about 17 years except the Christmas Jug Band album, Mistletoe Jam (Relix Records), which picks up airplay and sales every Christmas. There’s some great humor in songs like “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit” and “Rudolph the Bald-Headed Reindeer.” But you went so long without recording. Did you miss having a product out?
Hicks: Well, I started to. From about ’80 to ’85 I just pretty much stayed around the Bay Area, and it was around 1980, I think, Warner Bros. Dropped me from their roster. They were cleaning up their roster, and I was one person to go. When I started playing again and performing and making demos and trying to get together and get on a label, I thought I should be recording again. I did miss it and I missed not being with a company and I had songs, but it just wasn’t happening. Either the companies were too big and didn’t know what to do with me, or too small and didn’t have any money. There were times when I just sort of accepted it. All the time, I’d get the question, “What label are you on now?” or “You got any new recordings out?” and this kind of thing, and after a while I just sort of accepted it. There would be times when I would think, “This really isn’t my best career move.”
So, you’ve had a glut of unreleased material?
Hicks: Yeah, it kind of clears the slate. This and more. I’ve got another album’s worth of songs.
Are you going into the studio next?
Hicks: Yeah, I think that should be the avenue to take.
When you went into McCabe’s, was this planned as an album or did you just record it and hope for the best?
Hicks: That was planned. That was part of (executive producer) Ron Goldstein’s idea. We had been talking about how he wanted to do a live thing. It was kind of a series he was gonna do, and that’s where we figured out how I would fit in—live. Just like, keep the budget down and I could do it. I’m not a guy that needs to do something over and over again. So there was a time element on us. It was sort of like, “Well, let’s see now. Where could you record live? Wait a minute. You’re gonna be at McCabe’s in three weeks, right?” So we said, “Yeah. Okay, let’s do it there.” Some of these songs weren’t that rehearsed, you know, because we just didn’t. Some of them I just don’t do very often. Kind of a short notice. Even these players, like the accordion player doesn’t play with me that often to be that familiar with everything down cold. It was like that. Before when I recorded, for instance, Where’s The Money?, we recorded it in five nights. I guess the idea was to see what we could get. We all knew that we were going for it.
It comes off really well. You capture a feeling, you capture the scene when it’s happening. It also clears the way for you to go into the studio, naturally.
Hicks: Yeah, it got me going. I try to judge, like what’s happening here, with this album. What it is doing for me? There are certain things that it is doing for me. It’s getting my name back there, and the fact that I’m recording again or making a record, yeah, it’s helping a lot.
Do you put yourself into a role when you sing a song?
Hicks: Yeah, to deliver the song and to kind of recapture the immediate original feeling when I wrote it, or did sing it. I do. And sometimes, I’ll be going along and I’ll think, “I’m not even listening to this,” you know what I mean? And “I better get back on course here,” ‘cause I know it’ll sound better if I’m thinking about what is being said. In a way, I guess I do. Not as much as you see these singers that do hand gestures and all these things. “What was I to think?” (pointing to his head, laughing) “It touched my heaaaaaaaart.” I feel self conscious sometimes when I’ll do a little gesture, ‘cause I’m not used to it. I got a guitar, and I don’t like to give up the guitar ‘cause I don’t like to gie up the sound. All of the sudden, the sound ain’t happening, and there’s three or four other guys playing something else. I want that sound right here. I’m just so used to it.
Hicks: I don’t know. I used to have all kinds of thoughts about doing different writing, maybe write a movie or do this kind of thing. I always think about my musical career, I would like to get it to where I can be a little more in charge of when I work, where I work. I would like a little more acceptance and success. I’m 53. I don’t know how much longer I’ve got left. (Laughter) I really would like to get another album that could get on the charts. This kind of thing. Like me singing real good arrangements. And go up! See, even though it’s been 20 years or whatever, I still feel I should be having the same kind of things happening as the Hot Licks (Hicks’ band in the early ‘70s). We were like number 37 on Billbaord. Sold 100,000 copies, something like that on each album. I don’t feel that should be just something (in the past), I feel like that should be continuing. It shouldn’t be like, “Come on, Dan. That was then and that happened.” No, I don’t go for that. I think that kind of thing should be continuing.
Well, considering that it took you so long to put out of the next product, maybe now that might happen.
Hicks: Well, you know there’s that jazz in the city, but I just haven’t gotten over there lately. There’s a piano, bass, drums type of thing that I would like to… I could do that, I could do more singing standards and just sit in on a jazz setting, but I don’t get over there much, and I just don’t really play that much on the guitar either. I might sit in the corner for a little while. I’m not a guy who plays a lot. There must be some who do and some who don’t.
The Christmas Jug Band album has a lot of charm and your talents are all over it, but being a Christmas album gives it limitations.
Hicks: And also, it’s not really mine. I was a part of something.
Throughout, you’ve pretty much stayed on the road, coming out to tour every now and then. Do you like touring?
Hicks: Well, you know, whenever I’m gonna go tour, I don’t want to go do it. But when I go do it, I usually like to perform. It’s a lot of work. Doing the same thing every day—check out of the motel, drive to the next place, check into the hotel, do the sound thing, eat, come back, change, finally, do the show. The same thing all day long. Right now, it’s how I make my living. I can’t go like, “this sucks.” It’s aj ob. So, it’s hard to say if I like it or I don’t like it. I would like it maybe if I could afford for it to be set up a little better. If I could have a road manager, get a little rest myself. Kind of where I don’t see anybody at all, until it’s like, “Dan, here’s your guitar. Here’s the mic.” The show’s over, they put a blindfold on me, now get me out-a-here. “Dan, you’re at the hotel room. Okay, you can take your mask off.”
Actually, I don’t mind the encounters. People have gotten cooler, somehow. They’re cooler, and I don’t mind being approached at the gig and that kind of thing.
I’ll bet you’re still signing those Charlatans and Hot Licks albums.
Hicks: Yeah. I’m still doing that. I’ve got a stamp though, now. (Laughter)
I can’t help enjoying it if somebody’s thoroughly appreciating you, being really nice and complimentary. You gotta dig it. You’ve got to dig that.[ Close Window ]