Ben Dickey never really appreciated Blaze Foley before he heard John Prine’s acclaimed cover of “Clay Pigeons” in 2005.
That sent Dickey down a rabbit hole from which he still hasn’t emerged. The bluesy folk-rock musician makes his acting debut in the title role of the unconventional biopic Blaze, directed by his good friend Ethan Hawke.
The duo listened to a mixtape of sorts together when they were traveling through Canada more than a decade ago and couldn’t stop talking about the sound of Foley, an obscure musician who was part of the underground Texas outlaw country scene prior to his tragic death in 1989.
“Ethan and I both thought this guy was fantastic,” Dickey said during a recent stop in Dallas. “He’s got these deep heartbreak songs but he’s also got a song about his love of big cheeseburgers and good French fries. I was convinced that he was the real deal.”
While showcasing his music, the film also chronicles Foley’s relationship with girlfriend Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat), his collaborations with fellow musicians Townes Van Zandt and others, and how his alcoholism and personal demons derailed his music career prior to his tragic death. It features cameo appearances by Hawke, Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Sexton, and Richard Linklater.
Dickey and Hawke, a Fort Worth native, became friends through their respective significant others. In 2008, Hawke married Ryan Shawhughes, whose best friend since third grade happens to be Dickey’s longtime girlfriend.
“Fifteen years ago, after a celebration of sorts, we bonded over being Southern fellas whose parents were divorced and who loved guitars and cars, basketball and barbecue,” Dickey said. “He’s been a very supportive friend to me as an artist. Over the years we’ve gotten closer and closer.”
Dickey and Foley each hail from Arkansas and share other similarities. As Hawke began adapting Rosen’s memoir into a screenplay, he became more convinced that Dickey should play Foley. Despite that persistence, however, Dickey had no desire to become an actor.
“I said yes to it, thinking it probably wouldn’t happen. I just trusted him. When we started, the whole thing made sense to me. It was a complete surprise. It felt natural and felt good,” Dickey said. “I didn’t want to do an impersonation of him. I didn’t want to try and talk just like him. He’s got musicality in everything he does, and how he talks, and I wanted to represent that. And I wanted to capture his songs.”
Naturally, Dickey felt most at ease during the performance sequences in the film, most of which Hawke intentionally stacked together during the first few days of filming.
“I’m a performer. I’ve done a lot of shows. I listened to the Austin Outhouse tapes so much, that I could really put myself in that room. The low-key rhythm that Blaze has playing those songs, and the banter, I understood that. After the first three days were over, I felt like I had climbed the mountain and came back down, and just had to take care of the rest of the story.”
Dickey, 41, was part of a Philadelphia-based rock band, Blood Feathers, that showed promise but ultimately fell apart. He released his first solo album in 2016, for which Hawke directed a couple of music videos. So Dickey knows firsthand the life of a musician, like Foley, awaiting a breakthrough. And he hopes that comes through in the film.
“There’s something funny about the artists who catch fire and become famous. Often times it’s not exactly clear why it happens versus some of the artists who don’t,” he said. “Blaze was very special, but there are lots of Blaze Foleys of the world who aren’t going to get their due, and they’re playing to empty rooms. There’s something terrible about that, but there’s also something pretty graceful and beautiful about that.”
Ben Dickey and writer-director Ethan Hawke will be in attendance at various screenings of the film on Saturday and Sunday at the Magnolia and the Angelika Film Center in Plano. Check theater websites for tickets and showtimes.