Through four albums, the creative core behind Cracker remains unchanged: Lowery (ex-Camper Van Beethoven) sings lead on most songs and plays rhythm guitar; Johnny Hickman plays lead guitar and sings lead and background. Both men write the songs, sometimes together, sometimes individually.
Debut single "The Good Life" introduces Gentleman's Blues: its 16 tracks include some loud songs ("Seven Days," "The World Is Mine," "Waiting For You Girl," "Wild One"), quiet songs ("Hallelujah," "James River," the title track "Gentleman's Blues"), haunting songs ("Star," "Lullabye," "James River"), as well as some strange songs ("James River" again, "I Want Out Of The Circus," "Trials & Tribulations"). Come to think of it, just about all of the songs combine those four elements -- loud, quiet, haunting, and strange -- in varying degrees.
On Gentleman's Blues, Lowery and Hickman are joined by longtime Cracker bassist Bob Rupe, drummer Frank Funaro, and Kenny Margolis on keyboards and accordion. Working once again with producer Don Smith (who produced the group's self-titled 1992 debut, and platinum-plus 1993 breakthrough Kerosene Hat which spawned the post-modern hit "Low"), Cracker recorded the album during a brisk six weeks in Bearsville, NY, at the band's own studio in Richmond, VA, and at Don Smith's Mile High Studio in Agoura, CA.
The recording sessions featured contributions by a slew of friends: Guests on Gentleman's Blues include keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell (Tom Petty), bassist Tommy Stinson (ex-Replacements, ex-Bash In Pop, Perfect), bassist Davey Faragher (Cracker compadre emeritus), singer Kristin Asbury (September 67), percussionist Charlie Drayton, and singer LP (Lionfish).
"On the last few records," Lowery explains, "we've invited a lot of guest musicians to help us achieve what we were hearing and take things where they needed to go. Those bits of collaboration have just become a part of what we naturally do." Sometimes the collaborations take an unusual form, as on "James River," where Mike Campbell puts aside his guitar in favor of a cello. "He's just learning cello," says Lowery, "and we thought it would be kind of neat on that song: it would be a bit broken sounding, and it turned out to be perfect for the mood."
Between the release of their last album, The Golden Age, and the new Gentleman's Blues, both Lowery and Hickman have been busy with creative pursuits outside of Cracker. Lowery has produced projects for Joan Osborn, Virgin Records labelmate Lauren Hoffman, Magnet, Fighting Gravity, Sparklehorse, and other artists at his Sound Of Music studio in Richmond, VA; as well as co-producing (with Dennis Herring, who produced the last two Camper Van Beethoven albums, as well as Cracker's most recent album The Golden Age) the Counting Crows at the band's Los Angeles studio.
Lowery co-starred in director Eric Drilling's independent film "River Red" (screened at Sundance to good response, and due for autumn 1998 distribution by Castle Hill in a limited New York and Los Angeles release), and filmed his second feature "This Space Between Us" with director Matt Leutwyler in summer 1998. Hickman has also delved into the world of film by composing the original score for "River Red."
For all their wide-ranging pursuits, Lowery and Hickman remain dedicated to the musical environment in Cracker. The courtly title Gentleman's Blues reflects the fidelity: "The name just seemed to fit the album," Lowery admits. "We've been making music for a while, and a lot of the songs allude to the fact that we're now adults -- although not in a bad way, I hope, because I always want us to retain our immaturity," he laughs. "There's nothing worse than reading a review of a band that says 'the songwriting has really matured,' which usually means the record is really boring. We still have a healthy respect for impulsive, childish instincts."
"The song 'Wild One,'" he continues, "was inspired by my four-year-old niece. She was kind of having an episode -- she was wild, freaking out, had red candy on her face, and wanted to hear one of my earlier songs and scream along with it while we were in my sister's car. I didn't want to be too obvious about the source, but 'Wild One' is actually a celebration of really childish behavior."
With the release of Gentleman's Blues, Lowery and Hickman unveil a new collection of music in the grand Cracker tradition: blending rock 'n' roll, acerbic humor, cool guitars, and just enough immature volatility to prevent anyone from mistaking them for full-fledged grown ups.