Who Is Gary Nicholson?

Like so many songwriters, musicians and producers, Gary Nicholson is largely anonymous to the public at large, yet he has played an enormous role in the creation of hundreds of songs and albums. In fact, working as so many Texans do at the intersection of country and blues, he’s collaborated as writer, producer or guitarist for a galaxy of stars ranging from Willie to Garth to Ringo to Buddy Guy to Delbert McClinton and the late, great Guy Clark.

I featured one of his best songs, “Leap of Faith” as recorded by Delbert, in my post titled “Three White Men With (Rhythm and) The Blues” last May. Recently, I came across the same tune as the title track for an album by Seth Walker, a North Carolinian transplanted to Austin. You can probably see where this is going. Please allow me to introduce you to Gary via Seth and Delbert.

Seth Walker – Leap of Faith
and
Seth Walker – Gotta Get Back

Seth Walker is generally labeled as a blues artist, as is Delbert McClinton with whom he apparently connected after moving to Texas. But neither artist is that easy to categorize as their music ranges across R&B, country, folk, pop, New Orleans second-line and wherever their mood and song choices take them. I was previewing Seth’s most recent album, Gotta Get Back, when I learned that his biggest selling album, Leap of Faith, was produced by Gary Nicholson and featured seven songs co-written by the two of them, plus the title song. I fell in love with the range of songs, Seth’s very fine guitar (never overdone) and his expressive yet restrained singing.

He doesn’t go for the big brassy sound that’s associated with Delbert, nor the long guitar solos typical of many bluesmen. Still the album has an impressive array of instruments put to service in stompin’ toe tappers like the opening “Can’t Come With You” and “Somethin Fast,” groovin’ shuffles like “Rewind” and the title tune, soul ballads like “I Got A Song,” the church tinged “Lay Down,” and the semi-country cover of Nick Lowe’s, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide.” I think this album is going to be in my heavy rotation for quite a while.

There’s a gorgeous fully orchestrated version of Seth and Gary’s “I Got A Song,” which iTunes’s reviewer described as Ray Charles -like.  Here, however,  is Seth with a stripped down version, the unvarnished songwriters’ art.

 

Gotta Get Back has a little less Nicholson influence but as it’s Walker’s newest release, you will want to check it out. It does include five numbers he co-wrote with Gary including the kickoff number, “High Time.”

 

This album is a bit different in that Walker is trying to pay tribute to a number of musical styles which have influenced him over the course of his life. There’s New Orleans with “Fire in the Belly” (funk) and “Way Past Midnight” (second-line), folk with “Home Again,” gospel with “Turn This Thing Around,” pop with “Dreamer” and R&B groove with “Movin’ On.” If I had to pick just on of these albums, I’d go with Leap of Faith. But I’m more than glad to have both.

 

Delbert McClinton – Nothing Personal

Delbert frequently titles his albums with something other than one of the tunes included as he did here. He can also be a bit sly with misdirection. In fact the tone of the album is very personal in several ways: song selection, arrangements, vocal delivery, indeed in overall atmosphere. Gary Nicholson not only co-wrote five of the songs, he also produced this 2001 Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Blues category. Oh, and he played some fine guitar as here with Delbert on the “Sandy Beaches Cruise” in 2013.

It’s not that the album lacks the barroom blues kickers Delbert’s so well know for – there are several, but by eschewing the big brass section in favor of a smaller combo style, Nicholson gives the entire project more of a small room feel. It doesn’t detract at all from the rockin’ numbers, and it really shows off the more intimate ballads. On Nothing Personal Delbert ironically seems to be singing for you personally rather than shouting to a big honky tonk crowd. Numbers like the south of the border tinged “When Rita Leaves (Rita’s Gone)” – truly one of the greatest can’t-believe-she’s-gone-but-maybe-it’s-for-the-best songs ever written, the classically blue “All There Is Of Me,” and the philosophical “Watchin’ It Rain” take on the intimacy and emotional weight that makes them, in fact, truly personal. There’s not a bad tune in the bunch. Heck there’s even a terrific Texas two stepper. And Delbert and Gary surely hit the jackpot when Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had a big hit with their rollicking co-write “Squeeze Me In.” Obviously, I love this album! And I love this Delbert and Gary collaboration on a beautiful love song, “Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

Gary Nicholson has written too many of Delbert’s songs to count, and he’s played guitar and slide guitar on many others to boot. He’s produced five of Delbert’s albums, two of which won Grammys. Delbert would be great regardless, and Seth Walker would be too. Still there is something about Nicholson’s songs, playing and production that bring out their best. You’ve heard the evidence: the songs I’ve featured from these three albums were each co-written and played by the singer and Gary. The fact that he can do that with two guys born 34 years apart (not to mention all the others with whom he’s collaborated) sends a loud and clear answer to my question, who is Gary Nicholson?  He’s a huge talent, a helluva partner for an artist to have, and the emodiment of the best in Classic CowjazzR&B.  

Here are Gary and Seth showing us what it’s all about on a recent night in Dallas.

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Quick Hits #2 + Cherry Pickin’

This is the second in my series of relatively quick posts featuring only one or two albums.

(Editorial note: I’ve noticed many of the youtube videos I’ve checked out recently come with a political ad. I hope none attach themselves to any of the videos I’m including in these posts. That’s the last thing I want to have sully your valuable music time.)

 
The Time Jumpers – Kid Sister

The Time Jumpers are an aggregation of several of Nashville’s best veteran studio musicians and back up singers who about ten years ago began performing together every Monday night at The Station Inn. They now hold forth at a place called 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville with occasional out of town forays. The group of all stars includes a couple of fiddles and guitars, accordion, pedal steel, drums, horns – basically whatever is around that whoever is there can play. You easily hear that it’s all a labor of love for traditional western swing and country music. The level of musicianship is extraordinary, and the song selections are sublime. A part time group with just two prior albums yet four Grammy nominations – impressive.

Vince Gill joined in a few years ago because of his connection with several members of the group, including Dawn Sears who had been his backup singer for years. Sadly, she passed away from cancer a couple of years ago, but left one track behind which is incorporated as a duet with her husband – and fiddling vocalist –  Kenny Sears on the new album’s kickoff number, “My San Antonio Rose.”

The brand new album is dedicated to her memory. While Gill does take the lead on several numbers, he subjugates his presence to the benefit of the entire ensemble. If you like Asleep At The Wheel, traditional country music and extraordinary playing, you’ll love jumpin’ into the fun with the Time Jumpers. Be sure to check out their other albums as well.

 
Willie Nelson (with the Time Jumpers) – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

Speaking of The Time Jumpers, they are a big part of Willie’s tribute to Ray Price, also released in the last couple of weeks. Willie never ceases to amaze with his ability to repeat himself while never seeming to repeat himself, which is one reason I have more albums by him than any other artist. He has released two other duet albums with Ray Price going back several decades, and a third that also included Merle Haggard, all of which covered many of the same songs as are on this one. This time, however, with help from the Time Jumpers on six of the twelve cuts, he does them all in arrangements that are as much a tribute to Price’s 1960’s era countrypolitan sound as they are to Price himself. And he sings them as if he’s singing them for the first time. Maybe it’s having the Time Jumpers along – there’s a lot of love in the music they’re playing.

Here’s Willie and the Time Jumpers with Ray’s big hit, “I’ll Be There.”

 

 
This week’s Cherry Pickin’s

The Lonesome Strangers – “Goodbye Lonesome, Hello Baby Doll.” A roots group in the late 1980’s from the same area (Southern California) and era that spawned Chris Gaffney and later the Hacienda Brothers.

 

Tom Russell – “When Sinatra Played Juarez.” Russell is a great songwriter and pretty darn good singer who deserves more than a cherry pick. I’ll revisit him more fully in the future, but this tune is too cool not to pass along to you now.

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Dee Clark – “Raindrops” I’m writing this during a Hurricane Matthew induced deluge. It’s dedicated to all my friends along the southeastern US coast.

 

May your homes, like your martinis, stay dry, very dry.