Cracker to Crockfest
Almost an Athens band, '90s alternative faves are still crankin'

By Lee Valentine Smith

The line-up for this year's Crockfest blends elements of classic rock, country and alternative. The variety pack mix of ZZ Top and Toby Keith pretty much echoes the ingredients of every Cracker album from the past quarter century. Yep, they're on the bill, balancing a cool '90s alternative aesthetic with the modern country of mindset of Midland.
Blasting on the scene as grunge was captivating the nations collective consciousness, the rock/punk/Americana/soul blend of Cracker has outlasted nearly every one of its peers. Anchored by singer-songwriters David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, the ever-evolving group is now comprised of a tight backline core of Athens-based players.

Currently touring in support of 2014's Berkeley to Bakersfield, the band's actual setlist is anyone's guess until (and most likely during) showtime, with their only constant being genre-spanning rock and roll.

INsite spoke with co-founder Johnny Hickman from his studio in Colorado.

Congratulations on Cracker's quarter-century-plus anniversary.

Every day I wake up and pinch myself. David and I really started the band in in '91 or '92, just hangin' out and writing songs for what would soon become Cracker. At the time it was just us in a beat-up little house in Richmond. We'd decided to move there from California because it was just a cheap place to live and we were broke.

In 25-something years, you've weathered a lot of changes in the music industry.


Yeah but I try to stay positive with it. As you are surely aware, David is a real advocate for making sure we all get paid the way we're supposed to and figuring out ways to keep the big corporations to not exploit us or use our music without permission. We've really managed to keep going for over a quarter century now with help from our fantastic fanbase. We've recently noticed a whole influx of young fans that were just babies when the first record came out, or maybe they weren't even around yet.

That's a giant milestone.

I think that's a wonderful turning point for a band, to be able to stick around long enough and stay active long enough to get there. We haven't stopped much and we've been lucky to work with so many great musicians and such a great resource of musicians.

Since you've had so many great players in the band, does that change your original vision or intent?

In our case, really by design when we started working together, we'd both been in bands and signed to labels. We'd been through the machine a little bit already and we'd been friends for about ten years before we started working on songs together. We came to the conclusion that democracies don't really exist in most bands. It's kind of a myth, that "all-for-one-and-one-for-all" stuff, you know? It's usually one or two people at the very core of it, if you really look at it. In our case, we call ourselves the founding fathers of Cracker. We talked about it really early on, before there was a band.

What was the basic early plan for Cracker?

Well number one we realized that bands always break up at band meetings. So let's never have a band meeting. Let's just do it the Mick and Keith way. Lots of bands have tried it, like Steely Dan for example. Every so often, they'll bring certain musicians back into the fold. It's actually been very good for David and I to have had the opportunity to have worked, recorded and toured with some of the best musicians in the business.

But the thread is the signature sound.

Yeah, some way it always ends up sounding like Cracker. David's a very distinctive singer and songwriter and together we have a certain style. It always sounds like us but it's great to have had people like David Lovering from The Pixies or Jim Keltner, one of the best drummers in the entire world, play with us. We've had incredible live line-ups over the years. Most of the people we like to work with are in other bands and do other things as well.

The most recent record, Berkeley to Bakersfield, managed to look back and forward.

Yeah for the Berkeley disc, we got the Kerosene Hat guys back together. That was our breakthrough [in 1993].

That's the one that sealed the deal as far as legacy and commercial radio appeal.

Yeah, that was like this most recent one, too. We just had ideas for a rock record and we had ideas to write a more roots, Americana-flavored one. That's what we throw into the stew on every record. We never edit our influences - it all just comes naturally to us. That's why David and I became friends to begin with. We'd been to see each other's bands. There was this little bit of a mutual admiration thing going and a curiosity to see how it would fit together. Even in the punk and new wave days, we were the guys who also loved Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.

Yet commercial alternative radio readily embraced you.

And you know what? We were just as surprised by that as anyone else! We just played what was in our bloodstream but this was the time of grunge. For the most part, I think we were sort of an oddity. I remember doing shows where we'd do "Teen Angst" and all our rockers, then we'd pull out some of our more country stuff like "Lonesome Johnny Blues" or "Mr. Wrong." At some shows, we'd get some pretty confused looks from the audience. But that was always a plus for us. When everybody was trying to sound like a Seattle band, we just couldn't give a damn.

Crockfest is October 7 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater. For more information, please visit vzamp.com.

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