By PATRICK FLANARY
To soundproof the barn, the men hung scraps of wet carpet they'd collected from a nearby Dumpster. A guitar tech scattered space heaters around the barn to keep the band warm — they'd been at it for four straight days, building their sound stage on a vintage wild west movie lot in the middle of the desert. True DIY stuff. Rock 'n' roll.
With the physical labor behind them, Cracker faced its real task in late February 1993, recording a followup to their successful debut for Virgin Records. The band, along with late producer Don Smith, began rolling tape on what would become Kerosene Hat, the album that introduced the flannel-clad MTV generation to alt-country anthems like Low at the height of grunge.
For 20 years, frontman David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman have comprised the core of Cracker, which returns to Tampa on Saturday for a show with the Reverend Horton Heat at Ritz Ybor.
"Tampa is one of those places that's always been good to Cracker," says Lowery, 49, from his Richmond, Va. studio. "It seems like every summer we play Tampa. Why don't we go there when it's cold?"
Many Cracker fans — the most dedicated call themselves "Crumbs" — have followed Lowery's 30-year musical path since he formed '80s Southern California band Camper Van Beethoven. When Lowery disbanded the group in 1990, he partnered with childhood friend Hickman and moved across the country to form Cracker the following year. The band's first two albums, Cracker and Kerosene Hat, fused folk and punk influences with bar room blues at a time when Seattle rockers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains ruled radio airplay.
Between the demands of fatherhood and touring the country, Lowery has tinkered with a very different kind of project over the last five years: his first solo record. He hopes to release the album sometime after Cracker's road schedule winds down in September.
"I've gotten a little slower at songwriting, but I've found that I've gotten a lot more comfortable," he explains. "You've got to be willing to make mistakes."
Nearly two decades since its commercial peak, Cracker brings some of the band's most confident and direct songs to its 2009 album, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey. Hey Bret and I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right exemplify Hickman's classic raw riffs and Lowery's twang-tinged rebel yell. Cracker is indeed a band of rebels; following its 2003 split with Virgin, Cracker defiantly rerecorded fan favorites and issued a greatest hits package to compete with its former label's similar release.
"I've seen bands listen to the wrong people and start shaping themselves in the direction they think is expected of them instead of what they expect of themselves," says Hickman, 53. "It always ends up falling on its face somehow. But we still sound like Cracker. At the end of the day, I'll fall asleep in a hotel in New Jersey or Spain or wherever I am, and feel very thankful that we've gotten away with it for 20 years."
The band will wrap its tour with its traditional campout in the desert on Sept. 10, a birthday Lowery and Hickman share. The weekend-long music celebration in Pioneertown, Calif., even offers the Crumbs a spot next door to the place that sparked Cracker's do-it-yourself career — the old Kerosene Hat barn.