Review: Gary Nicholson – Texas Songbook (Bismeaux, 2011)
Gary Nicholson – Texas Songbook (Bismeaux, 2011)
Gary Nicholson is a Texan who’s had a lot of success in Tennessee. His songs have appeared on the albums and singles of country stars Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, marrying the hooks required of a Nashville hit with the complex emotions and deep country roots of Texas songwriting. His recording career has been more eclectic, starting with California country-rock in the early ‘70s, blues-rock in the mid-90s, and a return to his roots with an alter-ego tribute to Texas blues legends on 2008’s Gary Nicholson Presents Whitey Johnson. Last year’s Nashville Songbook, Volume One reclaimed a number of songs he’d peddled to Music Row, adding a songwriter’s expression that’s rooted in first-hand truth rather than interpretation and performance.
His new album sticks to the Texas tip, but in country style with a band full of Texans and Texas-reared guests (Delbert McClinton, Ray Benson, Marcia Ball, Mickey Raphael and Joe Ely) playing and singing songs about the Lone Star state-of-mind. Despite the length of time Nicholson’s spent in Nashville, he still writes in a native’s voice, even as he obliquely notes his two musical families with “Woman in Texas, Woman in Tennessee.” He celebrates the Texas character – tall tales (“Talkin’ Texas”), independence (“Fallin’ & Flyin’,” from Crazy Heart), and the bit of Texas that Texans carry with them wherever they go (“She Feels Like Texas”). The outsized scale of Texas geography is mapped in the compass points of “Lone Star Blues,” drawing a trail of mishaps for a luckless protagonist, and the ups and downs of a relationship are mirrored in the tumultuous “Texas Weather.”
Nicholson may not have the head-turning voice of those who’ve made his songs into hits, but as noted earlier, he sings with a songwriter’s feeling for lyrics and imagines a wide array of musical possibilities for his songs. The arrangements include fiddle-and-steel ballads, Texas two-steps, Western swing (including great steel from Tommy Detamore), New Orleans second-line rhythm and roll, Tex-Mex and country-folk. The album closes with “Somedays Your Write the Song,” co-authored with fellow-Texans Guy Clark and Jon Randall Stewart, and the title track for Clark’s Grammy-nominated 2009 album. The lyrics capture the hold that writing places on its writer, and provide a fitting cap to an album of songs that traverse both the truth and the legend of Texas living.