Timothy Showalter and Ben Dickey meet at Cisco’s to talk filmmaking, starting over and what it’s like to make a record on your own terms
By Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
It’s a Friday night at roughly 9 p.m. on the last weekend of South by Southwest, and everyone in and around Comal and Sixth, the corner where Cisco’s has stood for 69 years, is a mix of exhaustion and elation. As I walk into the Tex-Mex dive to meet Timothy Showalter, the musician known as Strand of Oaks, and Ben Dickey, a fellow musician and the star of the 2018 biopic Blaze, the slightly manic energy is palpable.
I’ll admit, I’m excited. I love their music and still have a vivid memory of the first time I heard Strand of Oaks live at The Bowery Ballroom on a cold night in 2014. At that time, Showalter was on tour for his critically acclaimed album HEAL. Since then, I’ve wondered about him and his intense onstage presence. The songwriter has been open about issues with substance abuse and depression, but despite all that, he has continued to release new music: 2017’s Hard Love and now 2019’s Eraserland.
Walking in to talk with Dickey, he’s fresh off a “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” appearance, where he performed with members of My Morning Jacket (who also back Showalter on the album), Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires; a show at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion; and a full day of SXSW press. Despite all that, and the implied exhaustion, Showalter is warm and personable and clearly excited to compare notes with Dickey. The two have been talking mere minutes before realizing they have layers of musician friends in common. Showalter, an Indiana native, has lived in Philadelphia for years, and although Dickey now lives in Louisiana, he too spent years living and working in Philly.
The Arkansas native began playing music in earnest at the age of 16 and by 18 was already touring with a band — first, Shake Ray Turbine; then, Amen Booze Rooster; and later, Blood Feathers. After Blood Feathers broke up in 2012, he was devastated but began the slow and healing process of recording his first solo album, Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics. Around that same time, Dickey’s friend Ethan Hawke tapped him to play murdered Texas singer-songwriter Blaze Foley. Not only was Dickey’s performance lauded, but he got the chance to work alongside Charlie Sexton (Sexton played Townes Van Zandt in the film), who ended up producing Dickey’s recently released album, A Glimmer on the Outskirts. Dickey strikes me as someone who can relate to the chaos of the music industry but over the years has found a way to navigate it on his own terms.
Timothy Showalter: I was flying to Boston, and Blaze was on the plane. I have to say, it was stunning. I just was genuinely touched by it.
Ben Dickey: My band was breaking up. A band that I worked really hard to get together. It was the kind of thing where we had made a ship, set our sails, everything was ready to go and then it started falling apart. My heart was breaking.
Ethan and I have been friends for about six years, and so, on New Year’s Eve 2015, we were all getting our coats on to walk to a party and I just picked up this guitar and started to play. I wasn’t trying to do anything. I was just biding my time. He looked at me, and at the end of the night — had to be 4 in the morning — he gripped me and was like, “I’m gonna make this Blaze [movie] for you, and you’re gonna be Blaze.”
He woke me up at, like, 8:45 a.m. on the first day of the year. My hangover hadn’t even begun to introduce itself to me — I was still drunk — and he said, “I’m really serious about this. Would you do it if I did it?” And I was like, “Sure,” thinking it would never, ever happen. A year from that moment, we were halfway done shooting.
TS: Does Ethan play music?
BD: He loves music, man. He sings. With Blaze, I was a location scout, because we were trying to find spaces where we could — there’s no overdubs on the film. It’s all from location. Everything.
It’s not like I’m gonna find the gold at the end of the rainbow. But I still dig it.”
BD: Absolutely. 100 percent. That was the mission. In the room that you’re sitting in, that’s what the guitar sounds like in that room. We had really nice mics hidden behind cigarette packs and stuff like that. In the Ale House scene, you can hear the busboy bring in ice like five times. And you can hear people being like, “I’m still waiting on the back table.”
BD: Oh yeah. It was full of that stuff. But that’s really what was going on in Blaze’s world. So that was a really magical thing to recreate. People were like smoking cigarettes, ordering daiquiris and shit.
TS: Well, I probably won’t see another movie for a bunch of years so—
BD: I’m glad it turned you on, man. You’re recording, you’re traveling, you’re searching, I can see that.
TS: Yeah. My record, it’s out next week, but I already feel like it’s been out for six months. I finished it a year ago. Everybody thinks, Here’s your brand-new record. I’m like, Brand-new? This is a two-year process to get what is new. So you kind of have to reawaken your senses.
BD: Are you gonna do a big tour?
TS: Yeah. We’re mildly known everywhere. So we wanna get to all those places.
BD: Keep the candles lit.
TS: Exactly. It’s strenuous.
BD: Where are you at with this one, versus before the last one?
TS: Well, with my last one, I loved it, but I had the wrong intentions and the wrong chemicals. It was a speedy time of my life. My band on the record is My Morning Jacket. And only because they got a signal I wasn’t doing that anymore. I think a smoke signal went up somewhere amongst my friends, and they’re like, “Tim’s in a bad way.” Including my wife [Sue Showalter] — she might have been the starting point of that.
BD: Amazing, amazing.
TS: Yeah. They set the time, they set the dates. My manager called me, and he was like, “You’re making a record with the guys in Jacket?” I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He’s like, “Well, you need to be here [at the recording studio] in March.”
BD: What a great way to make a record, honestly.
TS: I wrote at first with them because I’m like, “I can’t write shit songs,” and these guys are — and then I wrote it, and it ended up being more me than ever before. Because I wrote it beyond what I should do out of obligation.
BD: You got yourself out of the way.
TS: Yeah. And these friends knew — when I stop being excited, that’s the scariest thing. Before, when I’ve been horribly depressed, I still had that drive.
BD: My band had broken up. A buddy of mine, Trevor, was killed. Got hit by a car. One of the best people you’ve ever known.
TS: I remember that.
BD: And I was like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it?” I was chanting that over and over. And in the midst of that day, I started to try and make a record. So every Monday that I had — I had Mondays off [Dickey was working at a restaurant at the time] — I went to Quentin’s house, and I would work four and a half hours in his demo studio. For months. I scrambled together what I hoped would be a record. I brought Matt Barrett in to play some drums, and Robbie [Bennett] from War on Drugs came and played some keys.
TS: Matt was gonna be in my band. He was my neighbor.
BD: I just talked to Matt this morning.
TS: The Ripper.
BD: Exactly. And Quentin played guitar, and lo and behold, I made this solo record. I didn’t do it for anyone. I did it as a Hail Mary to get my brain back.
TS: And it’s not like I found better results. I mean, the record’s called “Eraserland.” It’s not like I’m gonna find the gold at the end of the rainbow. But I still dig it. At least now I’ve got a reason to do something for two years, and then I don’t know, who knows. Now, you have a record now, too.
BD: Yeah, it’s out. A Glimmer on the Outskirts. Just put it out.
TS: Fantastic. Congratulations.
BD: Yeah, I’ve been out for a month on tour with Hayes Carll.
TS: That’s a great pairing. I love Hayes.
BD: And I love Hayes’ new record [What It Is]. I like all the stuff he does, but the new record, he seems like he stretched himself, is motivated to go places. That’s exciting to me. Getting to work and make records with Charlie is a proper dream come true. And getting to know Charlie and see how he works — and know that he’s still avidly learning. That was really right on. A relief. You don’t know everything, great. It’s just keep on keeping on.
This story is part of our “Listening In” series, where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.