Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re probably familiar with the music of Texas country legend Blaze Foley.
Though not a household name, his music and his songs has been wildly revered by singer-songwriters for decades; his song, “Clay Pigeons,” has been endlessly covered—everyone from John Prine to Michael Cera had done a version of Foley’s classic lament. Even if you’ve never heard that song, in any of its forms, then at the very least Foley is probably your favorite songwriter’s favorite songwriter.
Given his ethereal nature, it may seem weird that he’s the subject of a new biopic, but Blaze is out to spread the myth and the legend of Blaze Foley. Led by the powerhouse performance of musician Ben Dickey, who brings Foley to life in his acting debut, Blaze is the first must-see musical biopic to hit the screens in years. Now playing in select cities, with expansion to follow in the coming weeks, Dickey has already earned resounding acclaim for his debut performance, including the Special Jury Prize for Achievement in Acting at Sundance earlier this year.
We got the chance to catch up with Dickey to talk about Blaze, the influence of the man himself, and the difficulties of transitioning from a musical career to an acting career.
“Award Winning Actor Ben Dickey.” Is that weird for you to hear?
[Laughs] It sure is. It sure is. That Sundance award was really cool, and I didn’t even know there was an award ceremony until right up to the moment that we went into that place that night. When I got that thing, it was a huge gust of wind into the sails of our film, so it felt really good. Made me feel lucky. Made me feel proud.
Had you ever imagined yourself acting?
No, not even a little bit. Ethan and I are good friends and over the years he’s kind of nudged me and said “I think you’d be good at this, are you sure you don’t want to audition for something?” I’ve just never had the inclination. But this story and the fact that it had to do with music, somebody’s music who I really care about, got me to the set. Once we made the movie I realized the process is very musical to me. It reminded me of making music, and it turned out that I quite loved it.
I made another movie with Vincent D’Onofrio directing, a cowboy movie, that was a lot of fun. I’ve got other offers so I’m just really happy to be standing where I’m standing.
Is that interfering with your music at all? Are you taking it as it comes?
I’m taking it as it comes. Charlie Sexton produced a record for me in December and we’re gonna put it out soon, this fall. I’m busy doing art. I’m busy making movies and making music and I feel incredibly excited and lucky to be doing so. [Editor’s note: Charlie Sexton co-stars in Blaze as Townes Van Zandt.]
Is that a separate album from the soundtrack or do you got two things going?
Yeah. The soundtrack is coming out, which I’m all over, but also—I was in a rock and roll band for a long time, the Blood Feathers, and we broke up in 2013. I put out a solo record in ’16, and this is my second that I worked on with Charlie, so I just keep on keeping on, you know what I mean?
I know this was a passion project for Ethan for a long time. Was that difficult to step into without having any experience?
It’s a passion project for both of us. For me, it was an opportunity to stand up for someone’s music that I love. That’s something I knew I could do very well. The acting part of it I wasn’t sure. Ethan really thought I was going to be able to take to it quickly. I love stories. I love storytelling. I love telling jokes. I love cinema. I love the choices that Ethan has made in his career. So he made me really safe. He gave me a couple of acting sessions with Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s a wonderful acting teacher who helped me enormously. I only had a couple but they were huge in presenting me with some principles to lean on, to understand what it wasn’t and what it is.
Ethan, the way he structured the shoot is he made the first quarter of it the hardest for me. I wasn’t aware of that until we were done with that, but it actually really helped me because I super overprepared in a way that I didn’t want to screw up anyone’s day. I was very aware of how the clock works and how we’re on the clock and that you gotta try and move at a quick clip. The people he surrounded me with were enormously helpful. Alia Shawkat, she’s a wonderful actress. A wonderful artist. Josh Hamilton I’ve known for a long time but not in this capacity. I’ve always been a gigantic Charlie Sexton fan and I knew that he was bringing a certain artistry to this art form of making movies. He was a musician I was just happy to get to visit with and now we’re good friends.
The opportunities even outside of this being an actor, being able to explore this artform and learn about it was huge. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
How much help would you say that Alia Shawkat gave you? I mean I guess D’Onofrio taught you and you can’t much ask for a better teacher…
[Laughs] Yeah. One of the biggest things, when we met we became fast friends. One of the things I said was “Alia, I’m so fucking nervous. It’s crazy how nervous I am.” And she said, “Hey look, me too. I’m always nervous. I’m nervous every day. Use it. Put that nervousness into the performance and put it into your preparation.” She was the first person on this project that said “Hey, do you want to run the lines?” She made me feel like I was already on the playing field. I had curiosities and I had ideas and I had improvisational moments that she’s really agile and great and natural with. By the time we got towards the end of the film, when we were in love in the treehouse, we were both very fond of each other. I consider her a dear, close friend of mine and I love her dearly. By the time we were shooting all that stuff we were having fun and Ethan was letting us kind of free range a little bit, do some improvisation. I trust her. I trust her instincts. It was a wonderful connection. She and I love one another and I support what she does and likewise to me.
How much of an influence has Blaze Foley had on you musically?
Before any of this came into light, he had a huge influence on my relationship with my dad, which was never really bad but I think my dad was worried about some of the choice I made in this life. Chasing a music career and hoping that I was gonna be able to make money doing it. Blaze Foley was someone [my dad] introduced me to via John Prine. I knew who Blaze was, I just didn’t know a lot about him. I turned my dad on to John Prine probably about 2003ish, and the next album John put out had “Clay Pigeons” on it. I had a fun time discovering Blaze with my dad. That was cool experience. That had an effect on me. I believe in the power of the song. I believe in music. I know how powerful it is for someone in a room full of friends to play a really beautiful song.
I learned a bunch of Blaze’s songs to just be able to play a guitar pools, and just pass the guitar. His sweet songs are sweet and simple and perfectly executed, but his dark ones are super deep and dark. I admire artists who go down deep and don’t disguise the darkness. “Cold Cold World” is wonderful example.
It’s weird that you say that about your dad. Growing up in Texas even, where Foley is more well known, but it always seems that for people my age it’s always someone dad or someone’s uncle had a tape that they found in Austin somewhere.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly! Isn’t that funny? I love that.
But it’s kind of emblematic of how Foley exists at this bizarre crossroads, you know? He’s not really super well known but those that do know him rightly revere him as a legend. Does that complicate your performance or inform any of the decisions that you made as an artist?
Only in the sense that I need the people in his life—his family and his friends and the people who revere his music—I just want them to understand how much care Ethan and I both dealt. The intention was to not try to enhance or contemporize it in any way. I didn’t want to do an impression of Blaze. As a person, the way he talked. I wasn’t trying to do an impersonation of him. When it comes to his music I was trying to capture what he did, that’s the big message.
I’ve actually had moments with people who aren’t hostile but maybe have some beef with some choices that we made. I’ve talked to them and they’ve said, “Oh you know this is wrong and he didn’t die the same night that The Outhouse happened,” et cetera et cetera. My question has always been, “Did you hear us play ‘Picture Cards?’ Did we take care of the songs? Do you think more people will hear the songs?” That’s what we’re trying to do. We made a movie. It’s not a Wikipedia page, as Ethan likes to say. It’s echoes of someone’s real life and these beautiful moments that we hodge-podged together, but we also glued it together with love.
His music takes you through the journey. I’ve had people who were lovers of Blaze come up to me and say, “Blaze loved me a lot, too. Why wasn’t I in the movie?” Well, you didn’t write a book. Sybil Rosen…it’s through [her] eyes. I’ve seen the movie 15 or 16 times, top to bottom, now. I’m always finding new things about it, but the thing that’s really solidified is that Sybil is our person in this movie. We’re watching Blaze, and we’re listening to Townes, but Sybil is the survivor. She was the supporter. She was the one who’s actions helped Blaze get out. It didn’t work out for their relationship, but it pushed Blaze to be the artist that he was.
The people in his life that were close to him always said he kept photographs of Sybil on his person at all times and that part of his life was remembered. It’s a funny little dance, but it’s what it is.
I know Sybil wrote the book that inspired the movie and she’s listed as a co-writer on the screenplay, but how closely did you work with Sybil to capture the performance and feelings?
She was wildly instrumental. Through the music and the script and a lot of my own reading, research, I started corresponding with her about six weeks before she came to set. She’s a wonderful human being. She’s funny and she’s generous. She offered so many insights into their love life and their relationship, very intimate and funny stories. Things they had done, choices that they made, trips they had gone on, jokes that he had told. She finally came to set—she was there through the whole time we shot—she just continued to be this guru-like character. She supported all of us; certainly she supported Alia, she supported me.
She played her own mother in the movie. That’s her up there playing her own mother. What a crazy experience for her. We were all very aware of her and she brought a lot of energy to us. I was worried at first over that notion, just because it’s a sensitive thing. You know the death scene was hard because she was there. It also sort of enhanced the realness. She continues to be a very dear friend of mine. We talk all the time.
Did she give you any advice on how to capture Blaze?
The biggest thing she helped me do was be myself. I was really obsessed with his voice—his talking voice, not his singing voice—and I had never seen any video of him moving. He had polio, so he had that limp. I really leaned on her, struggling on this voice. I’m a pretty good mimic and can do a lot of voices. I kind of got one down for him but it just felt awful, it felt kind of gross. And she said, “Darling just be yourself.” She was instrumental and one of the big reasons I felt fearless about the whole thing.
This movie is really as close as Blaze has ever been to being super well known on a national stage. Do you feel like a caretaker for him? Of his life, legacy, and music?
My hope is that people will find their way to Blaze and maybe a lot more artists they don’t know are there. It’s interesting, the times that we live in with social media and iPhones and whatnot, there are so many people who room with someone who’s profound as an artist, but they sort of had to have their hand held and be told, “Listen, this is really good.” I hope that this movie helps people find that meter in their heart for themselves. Where they can find something without anyone else having to hold their hand and take them to it.
It seems to me that there’s gonna be a lot of people who come forward and say, “I used to go see Blaze all the time!” But they probably didn’t [laughs]. If they were in the room they were probably talking over him. The last line in the movie, I’ll just say this, is one of my favorite lines of the movie, and it’s kind of the movie in the nutshell. It’s the gesture of life.
Has being so enmeshed in Blaze and his life had any effect on your own songwriting?
It did. I’m a songwriter in the sense that I can’t stop writing songs. They come like unwanted phone calls. I love it and that’s the way it is, but there was something interesting about closing that part of myself off to lend myself to Blaze’s music. I was obsessed—and still obsessed—with a fellow called Mississippi John Hurt and Lightning Hopkins. Some of these blues players do so much with so little. I spent a lot of time in the past learning those fellow’s music and then coming back to Blaze I kind of relearned the subtlety of fingerpicking in the sense that it can be elusively difficult when you mesh it with the cadence and the voice of a wonderful melody. How much power there is in that. It reminded me of some of the blues artists that influenced me when I was younger.
I realized that there was a lot more to learn, and that was very exciting. I don’t think I’m a master by any measure, but I’ve done a lot of rocking and rolling in my life and I keep wondering what’s next. It’s not necessarily a new guitar or a new amplifier, it’s something different. It was a very big turn on to have that realization. Working with Charlie Sexton and watching his vast understanding music and his way around the studio, I was thinking “I want to know more. I need to know more. I need to understand more.” It’s exciting, and Blaze did that for me.
Blaze is now playing in select cities with expansion this week.
Read our interview with Blaze director Ethan Hawke, featuring more with Ben Dickey, here.
Read our review of Blaze here.