Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) November 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: On Tour... Election 08

Wait, I know you’re feeling up to your ears in it but let’s take another quick look anyway, shall we? My God, what a simultaneously odd and wonderful freak show this is. CNN footage of drooling, monosyllabic racists aside, this race is almost amusing. I am in a North Carolina hotel room watching Larry King Live as he and guest commentator Bill Maher watch the NY Diocese Al Smith memorial charity dinner. Here they are, America. The two presidential candidates joyfully clowning one another like some late night commercial for the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts DVDs. I half expect 60s comedienne Ruth Buzi to come flying out of the wings to beat both of them with her purse. Part of me is wishing she would.

Forget Joe the Plumber who’s not a plumber, come on over to my front lawn and ask ME what’s on my mind! Hey...I’m a just a guitar player (really...unlike Joe I have my union card!), but I have a reasonably valid question: What in the flying f---- is going on here? Isn’t the country on the verge of collapsing from within? What are these guys doing sipping chardonnay and chortling at one another’s one-liners in their white bow ties while Rome burns?

Well, at least they have their senses of humor. Personally my votes lean Left with a few small Rightish tendencies, so I can snicker when SNL or others lampoon all four ticket members... And boy is there grist for that mill or what? Moose Mommy verbally stumbling through speeches in ways that make “W” look almost worldly in retrospect. SHE COULD BE PRESIDENT! Like many of you I’m afraid, but trying to enjoy the circus anyway. However, in this year of historic political tensions I’m a little uncomfortable laughing. Sort of like my days working in a mortuary, when yes, we had to joke occasionally or we would have lost our minds.

Pardon me while I think back to a more carefree election season. My band, Cracker, was invited to play at one of Bill Clinton’s most pivotal campaign rallies in Atlanta. A proud moment, a proud year. As I walked up for my token souvenir snapshot with Bill, I remember complimenting his resplendent suit. Instead of a simple “thank you,” he grinned knowingly and winked. I felt right there that the then-unsubstantiated rumors about his “PLAYA” ways were true. Bill had it goin’ on and knew it, big time. It was a surreal day, the grandeur, the left and the right “making nice,” the daughter of a prominent senator at the bar, tipsily attempting to say “hello” by biting my neck (while secret service types hovered yards away with eyebrows raised). Even in my post-show, gin and tonic haze, I felt trouble looming. I split through a side entrance feeling like an extra in a Bond flick. Interesting times indeed. Rock and roll decadence on a campaign trail budget. Indie/alt rock was blossoming into its heyday. We had an album out on a big label. Rock the Vote was huge, and we were proud to be part of it. Good times. Sigh.

Fifteen years later... the major labels (many of whom deserved it) are all but gone. For better and for worse, we now have the digital revolution. We can reach wider audiences. Of course, many of them think our life’s work, our music, should be downloadable, free, like the wind. Will they come work for me for free? Hey man, come on over and make Cracker a free pizza! (Sorry, another rant for another day). Probably three quarters of the bands that were together when my band was at its peak are no more. But here we are, thankfully, still going strong, willing to work longer hours with higher overhead to bring our music to fans and our paychecks home. We hope that even as recession threatens, people will always need live music to rejuvenate. We musicians, like everyone else, just hope to weather the ongoing storm.

To my fellow working musicians, I offer this bit of optimism: whatever the fallout from this historic election, whatever recession or changes in world politics these times bring, we all need to keep doing what we do best. Creating and entertaining. Even during The Great Depression of the 1930s the clubs and speakeasies were full of people downing prohibition booze and listening to live music to forget their woes. If the election goes against our wishes, may we write the best blues we ever wrote. Punk rock. Protest songs. Melancholy instrumentals. Regardless of how the election tips, let’s make the feel-good songs of the season, so the fans whose candidate triumphed can dance on the discarded lawn placards of the other side. WHEEEE!!! Those whose candidate lost can slip into the comforting Friday night ritual of wine, whisky and song. Same as it ever was.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) October 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: Uncle Johnny Answers Your Questions
This month I've decided to answer some of the questions sent to my MySpace* account. Thanks especially to Morst and Amy.

Q) What do you eat/drink to stay healthy on the road? A) I drink a lot of water and try to eat well as often as possible. Some of us like to have a cocktail here and there (wow! what a surprise!) and I try to balance out the erratic sleep hours and alcohol with rest, re-hydration and a healthy diet. I'm so thankful for tours where we play college or hippie-centric towns, because the fare tends to be healthier. Unlike those long drives through the Midwest, where sad bands can be seen wolfing down Hostess Cupcakes or Pop Tarts in gas station parking lots. I try to eat my biggest meal of the day a few hours before the show (it's hard to sing with a full stomach) and I eat little or nothing after-show. (This helps me sleep better.)

Q) What music do you listen to on the road? A) Depends on my mood like anybody I guess. Sometimes I can't stand listening to rock music because I play it myself every night. Other days I can't get enough, especially if it's something new that I'm obsessed with. I really like Backyard Tire Fire, Beck and The White Stripes. From the old school I listen to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Pixies, The Smiths, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones. To relax or escape from a bad day, I listen to Dead Can Dance, Bonnie Prince Billy or Nick Drake.

Q) Do you listen to music when you're trying to get inspired to write music for your next project? What else is inspiring? A) Sometimes, but the new music I come up with almost never ends up sounding like what I've listened to. Sometimes simply listening to any music can get you in the mood to write. I come up with a lot of rough ideas on the road but it's a challenge to finish anything. I need some solitude for that to happen and there is not much solitude there. I often hand whatever guitar riffs I've come up with to my partner in Cracker, David Lowery. He's a great songwriter and a lot more prolific than I am. Peter Buck from R.E.M. once told me that when he tries too hard nothing happens. He gets his best musical ideas just sitting and watching something like a baseball game on television with a guitar in is hands not really paying that much attention. Strangely, I often come up with music when I have a fever. The fall is good, so I'm glad Cracker is recording this fall and winter. The Canadian Geese that start flying overhead here in the Colorado fall never fail to give me a strange creative melancholy. I like their cacophonous honking. It's musical chaos, but in a good way. If I had to translate this into advice, I'd say don't bother with what works for others. If inspiration strikes, make the time somehow.

Q) So, is the whole "groupie" thing a reality, and if so, how do you react to it? A) Every band has their stories.... I myself happily take pictures and flirt a little with "friendly" fans. The aggressive, really drunk or scary types, we generally let the club deal with. For those who don't take the "Thank you, but I'm happily married" hint, I have a few stock responses. I reach for my cell phone and ask them, "Let's call my wife. Maybe it will be OK with her?" Or I ask if they would like to help move some amps please, or perhaps do my laundry. No takers yet….

Q) What are the best and worst things about playing in a band? A) To me one of the worst things is the physical toll the traveling takes. Being away from family and friends can be a disorienting, difficult and lonely experience. Living out of a suitcase is something I've been doing for most of my adult life, but it still sucks sometimes. For me the best aspects are playing shows, knowing you are a part of people's lives. I love meeting new people every day. Another great thing is waking up in that hotel room somewhere and remembering that I make music for a living. When things get rough I silently remind myself that I don't have to do this. I GET to do this.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Johnny Hickman is the co founder and lead guitarist for the band Cracker. Info at,
*Update: FYI, I really don't check my MySpace anymore.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) September 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: Why Do We Do This?

As musicians, we’ve all asked ourselves this. It’s a pragmatic and valid question. Let’s start with a few negatives that theoretically should stop us before we even entertain any aspirations of playing music professionally: The odds of actually earning a living as musicians are stacked overwhelmingly against us. The music business in general has scaled down to roughly one third of what it used to be only a decade ago and shows no sign of fully recuperating. The overhead cost of performing and touring is soaring due to high fuel costs and a troubled economy. Even devoting the time to hone your skills is a never-ending challenge, unless you are independently wealthy or you have no other life at all. – I’ve been in the latter category a few times and admit so unabashedly.

We know the odds, yet still we gather in someone’s garage or cramped rehearsal space to forge ahead with our goals to “make it.” Every year a handful of bands do just that. They somehow acquire decent instruments, write, rehearse and play their collective asses off. They earn a fan base, get the attention of one of the remaining record labels, and manage to get a deal. From the point of view of someone who has been through that music biz gristmill several times…if you really believe in yourself and feel you have something to offer to the music fans of the world, never give up. There were several times in my life when I put my guitar down in frustration and went back to “regular” jobs after yet another failed attempt or dead end. Each time I was miserable, until I got back in the game at least on some level. I know that someday, I will likely opt out again. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing it will all end, but it’s reality. The average life span of a band is six years. We’ve gone eighteen with Cracker. Nonstop. The odds are stacked against any one band making it AND especially, against that success lasting. So why do I do this? Why do any of us do this?

I remember reading a quote from a musician long ago that went something like this: “Anyone who says they did not start a band to get laid is lying.” Although it may hold some truth, that’s a rather presumptuous take. I can honestly say that I started playing the guitar and hanging out with musicians when I was “pre-pubescent,” and it was as a direct result of what I heard on the radio. I knew I wanted to make those sounds. I was only seven when I first picked up a guitar. It wasn’t until I was around thirteen or fourteen that I had the first inklings of understanding that music-carnal connection. I was playing with eighteen and nineteen-year-old guys who made me stand in the back because they were a little embarrassed by the “kid”. Pretty girls swarmed them after we played, as my dad came to pick me up in the family station wagon. I remember Dad’s knowing look as he scoped out the scene and his words of concern as we drove away, all of it ignored as the music in my head cranked and my thoughts drifted to ways to look a little older and cooler NEXT gig.

What it all boils down to is this. If you were meant to make music in your life, then you will. There simply is no other choice. You will suffer all manner of hardship, indignity, confusion, broken relationships, and frustration. This goes for the successful and unsuccessful among us. It’s a mysterious and bumpy elevator ride and you will hit every floor. Learn from what’s there or get out and slink back down the stairwell with your tail between your legs. Remember this: John Lennon was raised by his aunt Mimi who told him, “Music is a wonderful thing but it will never make you a living.” He lived in squalor with his mates, and ate beans on toast every day until he “made it.” He eventually framed his aunt’s words and hung them on the wall of one of his splendid homes. When my own father, a.k.a. “The Colonel,” tried to encourage me to join the military for the hundredth time, my humble response paraphrased another adage, “If I have something to fall back on, I just might.” After that Dad slowly began supporting my musical aspirations wholeheartedly. Now, I admit, I might advise that my own sons and nephews actually have something to fall back on. Given those pesky odds, I know that even with sheer determination, talent, and a huge dose of timing and luck, it won’t always work out. But, if music is not your primary passion, forget it. And while I don’t have my youthful, hubris-stoked statement framed on my wall, I do have it echoing in the back of my mind when I contemplate the realities of the precarious life I have chosen. I take it one day and one step at a time. So far so good.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) August 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: Hotel Life

I’ve been practically living in hotels for around twenty-five years. My nightly accommodations run the gamut from splendid historic European establishments to filthy dives that my friend Jared calls "touch nothing" motels. And in between, chains like Comfort Quality 8 Inn, varying immensely in both "Quality" and "Comfort." I implore you or your tour manager, research. Some are fine at $49 but I’ve run horrified from places in the $100 range, wanting to douse myself and my belongings with rubbing alcohol. The reviews at and other sites are a Godsend of recent years. Here are a few more tips to make your stay in Dullsville, Ohio a little less stressful.

1. You DID WHAT?! Hotels will often give your room away if you arrive late. Of course, being a musician, you will often arrive late because you GET OFF WORK AT 3 AM! Have reservation numbers ready to shove under their noses, and check in pre-show whenever possible.

2. Become The Things In The Lobby! Most desk clerks are efficient and courteous. When they are not…. I’ve learned to deal with self-important, big city hipster hotel staff in my own way. Scenario: The smarmy clerks are fawning over a long line of resplendently dressed business types and ignore the (ugh)....musicians with guitars and backpacks. You are late for an interview and/or sound check. Be what they fear most! Become...THE THINGS IN THE LOBBY! Start by peeling a banana. Lie down en masse on a pile of your gear and bags. Put your feet up on the faux leather ottoman. Feign sleep. Don’t get thrown out, just be the friendly, smiling eyesore. You’ll be in your rooms in minutes.

3. The Sharp-Dressed Man. Living out of a suitcase, I occasionally arrive to find the iron was stolen and never replaced. Hanging clothes to steam on the shower rod gets you soaked clothes. I hang my things behind the shower head using my own roll of packing tape and plastic hanger. I emerge looking like I stayed at the Hilton.

4. Knock Knock...houseKEEPing! (Dealing with sadistic hotel maids.) I know these people have unpleasant, low-paying jobs with slave-driving bosses. Give them the benefit of the first. Most are sweet hard working folk but some are uncaring and laugh at the "Do not disturb" sign you placed on the door at 3 a.m. They yell to one another outside your door at 7. They rap on it every 5 minutes, loudly chirping that one phrase like a screwdriver in your ear, even after you try to explain that you got to sleep 4 hours earlier and prearranged a late check out. First, call the front desk. If you are ignored, all bets are off. When the maid comes to torture you again, be ready! If you are not already naked, become so immediately. If your hair is not already a tangled mess, make it one. Distort your face into that of a homicidal maniac and yank the door open wide, roaring and staggering like a wild animal with a tranquilizer dart protruding from its neck. The last time I employed this tactic the offending maid crossed herself and muttered “oh no!” as she scurried away. I slept like a baby till noon.

Uncle Johnny, over and out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) July 2008

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: air travel.

Greetings fellow NOCO musicians! I’ve had the good fortune of touring the globe with my band Cracker for about 18 years now, and Scene has asked me to share some tips with those of you new to the world of the traveling musician. In May, airlines began charging a fee for checking a second piece of luggage. Research online, and you’ll find that fees vary from $10 to $50 each way. So far Delta is the only airline to state publicly that in addition to the standard "one carry on and one small personal item" we working musicians can also carry on a guitar or smaller-sized instrument. I recently flew Delta to Atlanta and back and they were very cool, happily allowing me to carry my ancient, beloved Les Paul onto the plane. Remember that smaller aircraft often don’t have the overhead space for guitars, basses and other instruments. In short: call ahead, make sure you won’t be forced to gate-check your baby in a soft case, and book a seat near the back to increase your odds of getting that overhead space. Happy travels!

Suggestions for next month’s topic? Send a request at *
* Update: Johnny doesn't really check his MySpace anymore either.