Page 5 of 6
Hicks had a dream but he also had excellent taste. From the start, Knuckleheads has benefited from his knack for wrangling artists in one-of-a-kind lineups. There was, for one, the night this past spring when he brought together iconic country crooner Ray Price, legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, Bakersfield two-stepper Dale Watson, and outlaw country DJ and artist Dallas Wayne.
Price was at Knuckleheads in July 2009, but that night didn't go particularly well. "The pricing I did kept people away," Hicks says. "We were sitting out there, getting shitfaced drunk, dividing how much money each song cost by how much I was losing." He laughs. "I thought, I'm going to work my ass off, but I'm having a good night tonight. Screw it. Ray Price is in the house, you know?"
This time around, Hicks reconsidered his pricing and set out with a much more ambitious goal. "I thought Ray [Price] would fill the house by himself. But if I bring all these other acts and make one of the best damn country shows that had ever happened, then I'd have to beat people off with a club, you know?"
That simple approach to the music business is surprisingly rare, especially from a musician's standpoint. Pete Anderson, a producer and artist who was Dwight Yoakam's guitarist for nearly 20 years, has made tour stops at Knuckleheads since 2005. "I've traveled all over the world, and there's a handful of guys out there like Frank," Anderson says. "Most places are very gentrified. They're very corporate. You know how you go to the mall, and every mall has a Foot Locker and a cookie shop, and they're all the same, no matter what city you're in?" Knuckleheads is the opposite of that, he says, with an idiosyncratic charm that's inherent in the architecture and also embodied in Hicks' attitude toward music. "He does the right thing for the right reason," Anderson says. "The boss loves music. It's certainly not common in the new world."
Besides the rarity of Hicks' personal touch, Knuckleheads owes much of its success to its location. "For the most part, the neighborhood is older folks that have lived here a long time," Hicks says. "Some of them have told me they like the music. Not very many of them come down here. Mostly I don't think they go out much."
It's a quiet neighborhood, other than the Union Pacific trains clattering mere feet away. "The train is part of it. I wouldn't trade it for the world," Hicks says. He didn't always feel that way. "It used to irritate the hell out of me. It seems that they always come by and honk the horn in the middle of a ballad or something." Hicks no longer worries, though, about pissing off artists. "I finally got to the attitude of, If it irritates 'em, the hell with 'em."
The train's howl shakes walls and rattles doors. It's also frequently responsible for eerie, magical moments that can happen only at Knuckleheads. "Joe Ely was playing here one time, and he does a song called 'Boxcar.' And he said that he waited 20 years for a train to come by at the perfect timing," Hicks says. Ely usually relies on an accordion to supply the song's train howl. "That night, he didn't have to. The train came by at the exact time it was supposed to."
Tonight, though, Guy Forsyth is winding into a grungy, psychedelic blues jam as the night wanes. The corseted woman's arms are wrapped around her man's shoulders. Perched on one of Knuckleheads' rooftops overlooking the train tracks, a shopping cart full of PBR empties glints, reflecting light from the stage.