Johnny Nicholas & Hell Bent
Johnny Nicholas bio
Texas bluesman Johnny Nicholas’ new album may be entitled Future Blues, but its roots lie in the past, specifically in the venerable traditions of country blues; acoustic music; Texas soul; and the ancestral, rich musical tapestry of the South. But be advised—this is not some sterile exercise in nostalgia for its own sake or music held captive by slavish fidelity to its sources. The music on Future Blues is a living, breathing (and crooning, jumping, swinging) entity, as full of life and vigor as a group of gifted Lone Star musicians can make it.
This is far from Nicholas’ first time at the rodeo. Born in Rhode Island, he formed his first R&B cover band in 1963 and lost little time jumping into the fertile blues/R&B scene on the East Coast, forming friendships and musical alliances with the likes of Duke Robillard (Roomful of Blues) and Fran Christina (the Fabulous Thunderbirds). In 1970, Nicholas moved to Ann Arbor where he and Fran and Steve Nardella formed the Boogie Bros, playing seven nights a week in the booming blues circuit that was Ann Arbor in the early 70s. They backed up everyone from One String Sam and Eddie Taylor to Billy Boy Arnold, Houston Stackhouse, and Boogie Woogie Red.
Johnny then went on to tour with Big Walter Horton, Roosevelt Sykes, Johnny Shines, Robert Pete Williams, and Robert Lockwood Jr. In 1975, he recorded his first solo album for Blind Pig Records entitled Too Many Bad Habits with special guests Big Walter and Johnny Shines.
In 1978, he moved to the musical hotbed of Austin, Texas, where he landed a gig singing and playing piano with famed Western Swing band, Asleep At the Wheel. But in a few years, he returned to the blues, forming his own band Johnny and the Ethnic Lovers, continuing to record in his own right. He also recorded and toured with blues legends Johnny Shines and Snooky Pryor, producing and playing guitar on their W.C. Handy Award-winning album Back To the Country.
Future Blues, in other words, has a long blues pedigree behind it. Recorded in Austin and produced by Bruce Hughes (The Resentments, Texas Sheiks, Jason Mraz), Future Blues is the first collection of new Johnny Nicholas material since 2005’s Livin’ with the Blues. Apart from the title track, which borrows from a couple of vintage Willie Brown songs, and a jumping cover of Bob Dylan’s “(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue,” the songs on the album are new Nicholas compositions.
“This hasn’t just happened by accident,” says Nicholas. “I made up my mind that I was going to start playing out more instead of just doing the routine I had been doing—going overseas a few times a year, playing at the café, and playing regional gigs. A lot of people felt like I’d quit playing because I’d disappeared from the scene. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
“The café Nicholas refers to is the celebrated Hill Top Café, which he and his wife Brenda run. The Greek/Cajun/down home Road House, located 10 miles north of the Hill Country town of Fredericksburg, Texas, is where Johnny hangs his hat when not on the road. “Be sure and mention that Brenda runs the restaurant and does all the hard work,” Johnny stressed to a reporter with an overabundance of modesty. “I wash dishes, mop the floors, and sing for my supper!”
Playing musical host to happy diners, Nicholas worked out many of the songs that appear on Future Blues, including the playful, sexy “Mr. Moon,” the shuffling dance floor groove of “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” and a tough, growling take on Dylan’s “(It’s All Over Now) Baby Blue.” “I just started messing around with ‘Baby Blue’ one day and put it onstage and people liked it,” says Nicholas. “It was kind of like Jimmy Reed meets Bob Dylan. What could go wrong?”
What could go wrong, indeed, with the cast of stellar players Nicholas and producer/bass player Hughes assembled for the Future Blues sessions. They enlisted steel and slide guitarist Cindy Cashdollar (Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield), drummer John Chipman (Band of Heathens), accordion and keyboardist Joel Guzman (Joe Ely), guitarist “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb (Ian McLagan, The Resentments) and some special guests such as Sam Broussard and David Greely (of Steve Riley’s Mamou Playboys) and blues guitarist par excellence Jimmie Vaughan.
Future Blues reunites Nicholas, Hughes, and Cashdollar after their successful collaboration with the 2008 acoustic blues Texas Sheiks project. That album, also produced by Hughes, was something of a last musical hurrah for their close friend and colleague, Austin guitarist/singer/songwriter Stephen Bruton. The recording, which also featured Geoffrey Muldaur and Jim Kweskin, was conceived as a way to keep Bruton working through the last phases of the cancer that would claim him in 2009. Bruton’s loss was a blow to Nicholas personally, but also an impetus to step out and re-assert himself musically.
“Out of all the music we made with the Texas Sheiks project, the one thing I thought I would enjoy most was working on a new album with Johnny,” says Hughes. When I asked Johnny if he had any new songs, he said he’d been working on some. So I suggested, ‘What do you think about going into the studio and recording a couple of them and see if it’s something you want to pursue?’ That opened the door to this collection of new material.”
“I wanted to showcase these songs and express what was deep inside me,” Nicholas emphasized. “I love doing all the traditional stuff that I know, but to be able to do my own songs is invigorating and exciting. So far, people have really dug the material, and that sure doesn’t hurt!”
Now listeners have a chance to dig the material, too, from the eerie careening groove of “Graveyard Blues” to the New Orleans-style triplets on “That’s the Price You Got to Pay” to the gospel groove of “Steadfast” and the playful, sly “Pass Your Tender Lips.” All that and more is present in the tracks of Future Blues. It’s Johnny Nicholas at his best, and that’s saying something indeed.