Since the mid 1980s, Ric Hickey has been a fixture of Cincinnati’s music community, as a counter jockey at local record stores and as the guitarist/vocalist for a variety of compelling bands — the Speed Hickeys, Telegram Sam, the Loose Wrecks and Sparrow Bellows among them — as well as through an ever-evolving and always fascinating solo career.
Recently, however, Hickey has been largely absent from music; Sparrow Bellows has quietly dispersed and his last solo release was The Last Shaggy Dog in 2010.
But Hickey has notched several significant life events since then: a new full-time position with the Starfire Council, a community organization that helps individuals with disabilities achieve mainstream inclusivity; marriage; fatherhood; and, sadly, the passing of his beloved father, singer/songwriter/stand-up comic Ray James.
During this period of somewhat diffused focus, Hickey continued writing songs even though he was only sporadically performing. Throughout his career, Hickey had shared new material with his father, a reliable and informed critic with an ear not compromised by parental pride. James’ assessment of Hickey’s new song portfolio just prior to his 2015 death was that it ranked among his son’s finest work. But it would be another five years before any of it would see the light of day as Hickey’s new solo album, Outsider Looking Out, officially released on Halloween.
“I didn’t feel like I had 12 or 13 songs that were the strongest so I let them simmer,” Hickey says during a recent phone interview. “I can be hypercritical of my own stuff, but I just finally decided to see it through. I got it to a point where I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of this track list. This is it.’ My dad felt so strongly about some of these songs, I figured I would release them and honor his wishes. He wanted people to hear this stuff.”
Outsider Looking Out is very different than Hickey’s previous material. A devoted Frank Zappa acolyte, Hickey recorded the new album at home with just an acoustic guitar and none of the electric pyrotechnics of his established catalog. The consistent elements here are Hickey’s expressive voice and lyrics, which are keenly observational and wryly humorous with just a touch of considered cynicism, combined with his supple, unplugged guitar touch.
“It feels like a very natural transition for me,” Hickey says. “The last things I released were the Sparrow Bellows CD and The Last Shaggy Dog, a disc of home recordings that had drums and massive overdubs and layers of guitars. It was 10 years ago so it was bound to be a little different.”
Hickey has always been an adept storytelling songwriter, although he has drifted into an inside-jokiness that is hilarious on the surface but only meaningful to those who actually experienced the documented situation.
On Outsider Looking Out, Hickey stripped away more than just the instrumentation; steered by Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, he tells relatable stories without the veil of metaphor or coded anonymity. One example is “The Man Who Left the Band,” inspired the late Jeff Austin’s departure from the Yonder Mountain String Band prior to the birth of his second child — a situation that clearly resonated with Hickey.
“I heard about it on some Bluegrass website or someplace,” he says. “The next morning, my wife Michelle left for work, I made coffee and started messing around with this idea of ‘the man who left the band.’ It turned into a longer fictionalized thing; it’s not about him, it’s just inspired by him. By 9 that morning I had it done, and by 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., I had recorded what you hear on the album.”
Hickey readily admits that he is motivated by very different musical impulses at this stage of the game. A guitarist since the age of 11, Hickey was long guided by his desire to be an ace guitarslinger, a goal he largely achieved. During his decade-long hiatus, his focus began to shift in a very unexpected direction.
“I’m thankful that fortune and fame never came to me because I would not have been able to handle either one,” Hickey says with a laugh. “When I was younger, it was all about getting better on guitar. But as I’ve gotten older, my tastes and what I respond to have changed. Everything Willie Nelson does is amazing, but it wasn’t like switching gears. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m no longer interested in being the next Edward Van Halen, now I want to be the next Willie Nelson’ — but it is what impresses me most. It used to be ‘Eruption,’ now it’s ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.’ ”
Many of Hickey’s other influences shine through on Outsider Looking Out; the Keith Richards/Rolling Stones feel of “Small World Getting Smaller,” the Bob Dylan-inflected “Talkin’ Bobby Bare Jr.’s 115th Dream,” the James Taylor/David Wilcox fingerpicked beauty of “Country Boy.” Perhaps the album’s oddest influence would be General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose deathbed words provided Hickey with the inspiration for the album’s closing song, the moving “Cross Over the River.” In the final analysis, the overarching influence through it all remains Ray James.
“‘Cross Over the River’ didn’t involve the usual work or toiling over the rhymes, it just needed me to let it come through me,” Hickey says. “It’s another Keith Richards thing; he believes songwriters have their antennae up all the time and have to be ready to receive the right signal. I don’t want to get too new-agey, but with my dad being a songwriter and the influence we had on each other, when something like that happens to me, I feel like he’s behind it somehow.”
Outsider Looking Out may stand among the best releases of this pandemically truncated year, but there’s more Hickey on the horizon. The album, available physically at Everybody’s Records, Shake It and Southgate House Revival, has also been posted digitally on Hickey’s Bandcamp page along with Outsider Looking Outtakes, a collection of unused songs of the same vintage.
The Bandcamp page also houses Hickey’s recent Friday happy hour live streams, which numbers close to 150 acoustic covers and originals, as well as his ongoing archive project, featuring unreleased live and studio recordings across his long band and solo history.
Given the abundant-yet-still-not-enough material his father left behind, Hickey is determined to leave a more complete legacy for his daughter.
“I felt like when my child was born, she’d be able to look back and say, ‘My crazy dad did all this shit when he was young, but he did something like this in his 50s,’ ” says Hickey. “It’s hard to articulate but it has a lot to do with not only my father but becoming a father. If we’re fortunate to have one parent we’re close to, we have moments where we see the world through their eyes, and feel like they see the world though ours. I’m seeing the world through Ava’s eyes right now, and I just want to leave something that she’ll be proud of.”
Listen to Ric Hickey’s new album, Outsider Looking Out, and learn more at richickeyarchive.bandcamp.com.