Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
Producer of Big Star’s seminal Third/Sister Lovers, occasional pianist for Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and auteur of one of record collecting’s holy grails, his 1972 solo LP Dixie Fried, Jim Dickinson epitomizes the cult hero. Like Van Dyke Parks and Lee Hazlewood, the Memphis, Tenn., resident is a complete weirdo who’s somehow managed to stick it out in the middle echelons of the music industry since the early ’60s. At first listen, his Free Beer Tomorrow could be a by-the-numbers blues-rock album by any successful ex-hippie: The opening track, “JC’s NYC Blues,” is a Big Easy-style strut about “going back to the junction”; there’s a reverent cover of a Merle Haggard chestnut; the title’s a corny corner-bar joke. The first clue that Dickinson is more or less fucking with us, however, is the subtleties of the backing instrumentation: jazz-violin solos, mandolins that barely hang together over boogie-woogie piano, trombones farting strategically and then quickly disappearing. And then there are the lyrics, delivered in Dickinson’s bourbon-marinated growl. “Asshole” is about just that, a “strictly low-class-o” whom even children despise. “Hungry Town” is a rueful look at “a match made in high school” that ends with Dickinson inviting his backing singers out for hot wings. And “I Gave Up Smokin’” equates getting off the vile weed with dumping a lover: “When I first got on tobacco/I thought it tasted good/When I first got on you/You did just what I thought you would.” The album’s high-weirdness high point, though, is the Dave Hickey-penned”Billy & Oscar,” an almost-nine-minute slide-guitar-and-drunken-piano epic that imagines Billy the Kid and “Oscar the Wilde” meeting in a “whorehouse for specialized tastes” and embarking on an unsuccessful quest for an upstanding citizen whose code of ethics is as honest as their outlaw philosophies. Dickinson has said in interviews that seeing records as compromises is the secret to his longevity. But when he depicts himself, Wilde, and Billy “down in the gutter/Looking up at the stars” toward the song’s end, it’s less an admission of defeat than a declaration of defiance. After all, in the music biz, being an outlaw and being a weird old guy with staying power are roughly the same thing. —Andrew Beaujon