When Johnny Hickman first met Jim Dalton, he could have guessed they’d become great friends and mind-reading bandmates.
A friend of Hickman’s had told him to see Dalton’s Denver-based country band, the Railbenders. As half of alt-rock band Cracker, Hickman had moved to Loveland to raise a family with his wife – and seeing Dalton front his Railbenders was just another step in getting to know the local music community of which he was now a part.
“So I took my father in law to see the Railbenders, and he’s also a beer drinking buddy of mine,” Hickman said earlier this week, taking a break from the studio while recording his second solo album. “I didn’t know it was Dalton’s birthday, but they were playing hard country – you know, a little more barbed wire than flowers.
“A lot of what Nashville is today is slick, but these guys were digging deep, and it sounded like ‘At Folsom Prison.’ Dalton was in the middle of a song, with that cowboy hat pulled down low, and he dived into the crowd and they passed him around the room for a while. And I thought, ‘That’s cool. I have to meet this cat.’ ”
As Hickman had guessed, a friendship followed – as did a band, the Hickman-Dalton Gang, which plays a rare show Friday at the Soiled Dove Underground.
The Hickman-Dalton Gang is best described by referencing the various projects Hickman and Dalton regularly play with. If you combine the big-country sensibilities of the Railbenders with the smart alt-rock of Cracker and the uncanny pop sensibilities of Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers – a national group that has featured Dalton as its lead guitarist for a number of years – you come out with a sound that resembles the Hickman-Dalton Gang.
Sometimes songs from those other bands sneak into the Hickman-Dalton mix – including the Railbenders’ road trip anthem “Whiskey Rain” and the early Cracker album track “Mr. Wrong.” But they also write originals for the Gang together – an exercise that has only deepened their friendship.
“We work well together,” said Hickman. “We typically walk in and say, ‘These are my songs,’ and I’ll have a song and say, ‘It’s pretty good,’ and Dalton will say, ‘No way, you’re doing that one.’ It was ‘(Come On Back To) Stockton,’ and he liked that one, and he added a cool riff to it. And he’d tell me, ‘I have this cool idea, but it’s not a song yet.’ It was ‘Long White Line,’ and we kicked it around, and I added some lyrics, and it worked.
“We have the ability to complete each other’s ideas.
One of the band’s most inspired songs, the western-tinged “Elizabeth” from the band’s “Volume II,” is a potent example of the band’s dynamic. The song could easily fit into a Railbenders set, and while it’s quintessential Jim Dalton – “It’s so Jim Dalton doing Jim Dalton, it’s him singing it like Johnny Cash back from the grave,” said Hickman – it gets a gutsy punch from a fitting Hickman guitar solo.
“I got really inspired to wrap some real Telecaster stuff around it,” said Hickman. “That’s what working with Dalton does to me.”
But for being a gang, Hickman and Dalton don’t ride around much together. In fact, they rarely see each other. The Peacemakers tour constantly, as does Cracker. The fact that the Hickman-Dalton Gang released a “Volume I” surprised them both. That they made time for a “Volume II” was an even bigger triumph. Friday’s show at the Soiled Dove Underground – which will feature honorary Gang members Jeremy Lawton on bass, Chris “Pelon” Helvey on drums and Tony Nascar on guitar – is the first time the band will play together since they released “Volume II” in early July.
“It’s so rare that we get to play together,” said Hickman. “I’m amazed we made a record and got it out this year, because our schedules are tough. And in a way that makes for creative urgency where you go in and you have to nail it because you only have a couple days before heading back out on the road.”