I loved that old PBS show Connections, where host James Burke would wander around the world describing how one small invention centuries ago led to this and then that and then ultimately to some earth-shattering change like, oh, the Great Depression. He was one my guides to looking beneath the layers. But I was already on board that idea thanks to my passion for music. Reading liner notes and books LONG before the internet, I built a framework on which I could hang new bits of musical knowledge. You think you know Led Zeppelin and then you find out Jimmy Page was in the Yardbirds first! You fall for Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album and find out that the piano player Bill Evans had a solo career as well, and you check that out, and life is never the same again.
Nashville is full of these kinds of connections. It’s a web of relationships among musicians of many generations and stylistic persuasions. And while this vast collaborative collective remains invisible to most music consumers, the super-fans and music aficionados are always delighting in fitting pieces of the puzzle together. This week on Music City Roots (at last I’m getting to my point) those kinds of connections will be on bright display. The return of 18 South is complimented by appearances by Gary Nicholson and Seth Walker, and as you will see, they’re not strangers.
Nicholson, one of Music City’s most influential behind-the-scenes musicians, might be called the show’s lynchpin. His detailed bio is elsewhere on this site, so I won’t repeat its many intricate details, but suffice it to say that this Texas native has seen and done it all in an extraordinary career. He’s befriended Gram Parsons and toured with Delbert McClinton. He’s written hit songs for a raft of country stars as well as R&B greats like Etta James and B.B. King. (He reports that he’ll have several cuts on an upcoming album by his hero Buddy Guy as well.) And he’s a producer who’s steered albums by McClinton, Wynonna, Pam Tillis and others. Others such as Jessi Alexander of 18 South.
Before she formed this awe-inspiring band with her husband Jon Randall Stewart, she was a buzzed about newcomer on Music Row, and her 2005 debut album Honeysuckle Sweet was made in tandem with Nicholson. She and her project became the victim of record company mergers and country radio homogeneity, and she was let go, at the same time and by the same company that let go her future husband. Today John Randall is also a regular co-writer with Nicholson, and they have a strong sense of soul and roots music that percolates through everything they do.
Nicholson also recently produced Leap of Faith, the recent album by former Austinite Seth Walker. Walker has generated amazing buzz with a style that splices roots/Americana with Sam Cooke-style R&B. “I can’t say enough about him,” opines Nicholson. “He’s one of the most natural entertainers I’ve ever been around. And he has a really cool crooner’s voice.” The always stylish Seth has been out to the show as a guest and fan, but we’re really excited to have him play.
And of course Nicholson literally produced Luke Nicholson, thought Gary says he never pushed or prodded his son toward music. “Seemingly out of nowhere he started to sing and I was always impressed by the songs he chose,” Nicholson says. “He displayed excellent taste in songwriters,” covering folks like Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons and Randy Newman. And then, as usually happens, Luke began writing striking songs of his own. We can’t wait to hear them.
And for his own part, Nicholson says he’s looking forward to showcasing “Fallin’ and Flying,” a song he co-wrote with his recently departed friend Stephen Bruton, the Austin legend, for the Oscar-winning film “Crazy Heart.” And he’ll be bringing his old buddy Colin Linden along to back him up with his remarkable slide and fingerstyle guitar chops. Oh yeah, and Colin played on Seth’s album as well.
“We’re kind of a gang of kindred spirits,” Nicholson says of the whole night’s roster. “We all know each other’s material enough that we can play and sing together. It should be a lot of fun.”
And that’s the understatement of the week.