Leave it to Frank Hicks, owner of the venerable and beloved Kansas City venue Knuckleheads, to throw himself the kind of birthday party he's always wanted. This Friday, Hicks celebrates his 66th birthday with an all-star folk and Americana lineup.
Oklahoma native, Grammy nominee and one of Hicks' favorite musicians, John Fullbright, leads the bill. Jason Eady and Courtney Patton, from Texas, and Knoxville's the Black Lillies are also on deck tomorrow night.
"I'm turning 66," laughs Hicks over the phone. "I just thought, 'Well, it's my birthday, what the hell. I'll do what I wanna do!' There are plenty of people in this business that I love and want to share music with. Might as well, right?"
Frank, who estimates that Knuckleheads got off the ground "somewhere between 1997 and 2002," has been in the business long enough to know how to put together a solid night of music.
"These bands are a mixture of old and new," Hicks says of tomorrow night's bill. "Fullbright - I fell in love with him when I first saw him. He's a young kid, 25 or so - I'm old enough to be his grandfather, I guess, but I just really, really like the kid. He really does remind me of a modern-day Jackson Browne. You really gotta experience him."
Listening to Hicks talk about the bands he loves never gets old. He describes them humbly, like a man who is still in awe of the talent that has found its way into his life. He has a feel-good anecdote about the first time he met Jason Eady.
"There's a long story behind Jason Eady, but I'll try to sum it up: He was one of the first guys to come down and play here, and he didn't draw anybody. No one knew who he was. I paid him a little money - not a lot, about what the sound guy got paid, like $100 or something," Hicks says. "He loaded in his stuff after his set and then he came back in and counted it all down in front of me and kept $40, and he said that was all he needed to get to his next place, and he didn't want me to lose anything on him."
He continues: "I just thought that was really cool, that he gave a damn. Now, he's finally getting big crowds to come out and see him - a couple hundred people. It all comes back around, I guess."
Often, in the middle of a story riddled with references to classic musicians and late-night Knuckleheads jams, Hicks will interrupt himself to ask if I've seen one of the bands he's talking about or to make sure I'm familiar with one of the names he's mentioning. He's not patronizing - he just wants to put things in context.
"The Black Lillies are great kids - I call 'em kids, but they're adults, I guess. Have you seen them?" he inquires. "They've been around not very long, but they've become one of my favorite live acts. They have such a cool energy. They just move me."
Hicks is eager to see how Friday night unfolds and casually explains what his greatest hope for the evening is.
"My goal to my birthday, really - and I'm not advertising this or anything - I don't know if it's possible, but I'd really like to see if I can re-create the sort of after-hours impromptu jam sessions that happen here, when everybody's gone," Hicks says. "I want the world to see these great musicians just letting loose, with no rehearsal and all spontaneous, and just starting to play together."
Is there anything Hicks is particularly grateful for, after his 66 years on the planet?
"Well, I woke up this morning and thanked God I was still here," he says gruffly after a pause.
I can hear a loud train whistle in the background. Hicks is on his way to Knuckleheads, stopped at the railroad tracks. It's the perfect moment to reflect.
"I got so much stuff that I want to do yet. I think of it as... You know, I'm not afraid of dying, I'm just afraid of not being around. There are so many things I want to do. I got plans every year," Hicks says. "There are so many people I want to bring in here - so many things I want to do with this place. It's been a lifelong dream to have Knuckleheads and be involved with music. I can't sing and I can't dance and I can't play anything, but I do know about music, and I can get people down here, and I think I can entertain folks."
He goes on: "I think everyone is an entertainer in one way or another, but I think having the venue - I think people feel really comfortable and at home here. We strive to make this place like a party in your backyard. That's what we want to do, have it be like a party at your friend's house, and you're having a hell of a time."
I ask Hicks about the future and what he has planned, and how it feels to weather the storm of the fickle music business.
"Oh, even if the business went really bad, I still wouldn't quit this. I'd be selling my house so I could live here and keep it going," Hicks laughs. "Don't tell my wife that."
John Fullbright, Jason Eady, Courtney Patton, and the Black Lillies play Frank's Birthday Bash at Knuckleheads on Friday, December 13. Details here.