credit: Liina Raud
For all the moonlighting he's done in other genres over the years, Carl Nichols always comes back to the blues. At various points in his career Nichols has played gospel (despite being an atheist), West African music (despite being born and raised in Milwaukee) and, as one half of the acclaimed folk duo Nickel & Rose, Americana (despite having some deep reservations about that genre's long history of appropriating black music without always welcoming black musicians). None of those gigs, however, extinguished his desire to play the kind of traditional, acoustic blues he grew up admiring.
Maybe on some level he's pathologically drawn to spaces where he's an outsider. As a twentysomething black musician, Nichols is all too aware that the modern blues scene doesn't look much like him, but he never outgrew his childhood love of the music. "It seemed cool to me when I was young," he says. "You'd just hear people like Lightnin’ Hopkins or R.L. Burnside, and they just seemed cool. That's why anybody gets into music, because it speaks to them."
And it continues to speak to him, so much so that he’s tabled Nickel & Rose just as the duo was establishing itself as a major folk festival draw t
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