Coming to Virginia is like coming home for alt-rock band Cracker. The act started in Richmond, with core members David Lowery and Johnny Hickman. Both have moved on since then — Lowery down south, where he is a music business professor at the University of Georgia, and Hickman out to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he has built a niche for his solo career.
Cracker returns to Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center for a Sunday night show. Hickman, in a recent phone call, recalled the band’s formation in 1990.
Lowery called him soon after his band, Camper Van Beethoven, imploded while on tour in Europe. They had known each other growing up as punk rockers in California’s Inland Empire region, and bonded over a shared affinity for country music, “real country music, as we call it, the Merle Haggards and the Willie Nelsons and the Johnny Cashes. That’s always been sort of an element to Cracker, and you can hear it on just about every record.”
When Lowery reached out, Hickman was living in a country mecca, Bakersfield, California. They started writing immediately.
“From the get-go, it was just really easy for us to write songs together,” Hickman said. “I brought some songs in. He brought some songs in. We wrote some together. We thought, this could work.”
Lowery had fallen in love with a woman from Richmond, and Hickman was fancy-free enough to make a cross-country move. Relationships came and went, but the songwriting partnership remained firm.
“He’s one of the best songwriters out there, and I love writing songs with him,” said Hickman, who plays lead guitar. “I’ll come in with a big, bonehead guitar riff, and he’ll create something masterful around it.”
Some songs Lowery writes on his own, or outside the band, and same for Hickman.
“There’s no set way,” he said. “I like it that way.”
That loose structure has brought them such radio hits as “Teen Angst,” “Low,” “Euro-Trash Girl,” “Get Off This” and “Big Dipper.” The band’s most recent album, from 2014, was a double-CD set, “Berkeley to Bakersfield,” on which it celebrated both its rock and country roots. That disc was new when Cracker played the Harvester in 2015. As that cycle is ending, the set lists are leaning more toward rock, Hickman said, with a couple of songs from each record, plus the hits.
“David and I agreed on that really early on,” he said. “ ‘Teen Angst’ was our first radio hit. ... When that was on the radio, we used to talk about bands that thought they were too cool to play their hits. We made a clear decision: Let’s never be those guys; let’s never be uber, ultra hipsters and think we’re too cool for our own good.”
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Cracker has a reputation for writing from some down-and-out dudes' perspectives. Hickman wrote one of the band's earliest, "Mr. Wrong." That one appeared on the group's debut, self-titled album.
Its chorus: "Well no, I'd rather not go and meet your family / They'd probably send me back where I belong / Don't want to hear about your Mr. Right / Cause he's out of town tonight / Baby come and spend some time with Mr. Wrong."
That one came to Hickman in Bakerfield, and it has a good old honky-tonk shuffle beat behind it.
"Euro-Trash Girl" was a full-band effort from EP "Tuscon" and subsequent album "Kerosene Hat," with bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Joey Peters getting co-writing credits.
"It was a very fun song to write," he said. "Sort of culled from experience. We sort of created this character in a song, this hapless guy ... he has to bathe in a fountain. He loses his passport. He phones home for help and doesn’t get much.
"These hapless characters sort of people our songs. They’re kind of lovable bad guys, sort of like the Mr. Wrong guy. who might be the same guy that popped up in "How Can I Live Without You (if it means I’ve gotta get a job). A lovable rascal."
But they're not the guys in Cracker, Hickman said. He and Lowery will tear the occasional page from a diary, but they prefer to create characters and let them speak, in the vein of Randy Newman and Lou Reed, Hickman said.
"We as songwriters should be able to have the same sort of freedoms as a novelist or a poet or a screenwriter," he said. "But people tend to expect you to be the protagonist in your song.
"If you say something that’s kind of outrageous, sometimes people will take offense to it. I think it’s kind of comical. We just do it anyway. It’s just more fun to be able to write songs and have a bad guy, or be a bad guy."
The music — a rock-drenched, sometimes twangy, sometimes psychedelic melange — has always been a good match for the lyrics. Expect the band to lean toward its more rocking material at the Harvester, Hickman said. He wouldn't give away much more than that.
"We’re working up a lot of songs we haven’t done in a long time, so the fans will be really happy about that, I’m sure."