He’s not widely known, but to a small but fervent group of followers, Ben Dickey is one of Arkansas’s great musical exports. He was a vocalist and guitarist in Shake Ray Turbine, a beloved post-hardcore band that had its heyday in the late ’90s, in the last days of Little Rock’s Towncraft era. A decade later, in Philadelphia, he co-starred in Blood Feathers, a rock ‘n’ roll band with a vintage sound and a knack for melody that released three albums and always seemed on the verge of breaking out, but never did. Now, he’s returning to Little Rock to celebrate the release of his debut solo album, “Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics” (Max Recordings), with a show at the White Water Tavern on Friday, July 29.
It’s an album that deserves a wide audience. As former Arkansas Times arts and entertainment editor Robert Bell wrote on Facebook, “If y’all dig impeccable rock ‘n’ roll born of a lifetime of careful listening and decades in the rock trenches, which effortlessly melds Dylan/Petty singer/songwriter tunes and a touch of T. Rex-y sheen with a peppering of country blues guitar picking of the first order, then you should listen to this.”
Dickey recorded the album every Monday over the course of about 10 months in Philadelphia. In the wake of the dissolution of Blood Feathers, he was working long hours as a chef and Monday was his day off. “I was trying to make a record against the odds of working 70 hours a week and trying to maybe repair my band, which I’d just broken up,” he said. He recruited Matt Barrick of The Walkmen to play drums and Robbie Bennett from War on Drugs to play keyboard. Local musician Quentin Stoltzfus produced and played bass and provided some backing vocals.
There are glimpses of darkness throughout “Sexy Birds,” but an amiable Southern swing dominates; it’s country-drive music, the soundtrack to sitting on a porch at sundown. But Dickey said the days were dark during recording. “The job was tough. A friend of mine who I worked with died in a really tragic way. I think I was kind of having a meltdown.”
He’d been longing to leave Philadelphia for some time. So he took a friend up on an offer of a different kind of life. Since late 2014, Dickey and his girlfriend have lived on a 5,500-acre cotton and corn farm in Caddo Parish, La., not far from the Arkansas and Texas borders. Dickey’s friend owns the farm and had a spare house. There’s a pond and bayous and the Red River cuts through the property.
Dickey has always been the guy with guitar, constantly writing songs in his head. “That’s the thing that I know that I can do,” he said. “[Songs] just come and I feel better about everything in the universe.” At the farm, there’s space for him to record demos and for his girlfriend to make art. “Mostly all we do is work in studios. Gear our lives to get ready to keep doing that. This is what we were hoping it would look like. … It’s isolated, but it works,” he said.
Aside from the White Water show, Dickey doesn’t have other dates scheduled. “Booking in Louisiana is an uphill battle,” he said. “Everything is slow and low, which I can’t really complain about, but sometimes it’s hard to get people to snap out of it. It’s kind of charming sometimes. There’s not a lot of faith in the internet.”
Dickey doesn’t have much of a web presence himself. “I’m not the best in the computer world, but I’m all right. I can do some emails,” he said, laughing. But he does have two music videos online, both directed by the actor Ethan Hawke, who’s a friend. Hawke’s daughter with Uma Thurman, Maya Thurman-Hawke, stars in one for the song “Down the Shore” that was filmed in New York. Hawke and Dickey filmed one for the song “Nasty Girls” in Louisiana. It includes drone footage of Dickey trying to escape a hedge maze, a scene of him on the porch of a plantation mansion that looks a lot like the one in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and many shots of a dog exploring the wilds of Louisiana. Earlier this week, the latest activity on the video’s Vimeo page was a like from his mom. In Vimeo, it read “Robyn Dickey ‘hearts’ ‘Nasty Girls.’ “
“She’s a devoted mom,” Dickey said, laughing, when I told him. During President Clinton’s years in the White House, his mom worked as director of special projects and visitor needs (his dad is former Arkansas Razorback football star David Dickey). Does that mean she was devoted enough to book him to play some state dinners? “She failed me there,” he said. “But you never know, if Hillary wins in November … .”
The Libras open for Ben Dickey at White Water Tavern at 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 29, $5.