Gary Nicholson may be the most accomplished talent in country music that you’ve never heard of. He has written hits for Vince Gill (“One More Last Chance”), Patty Loveless (“The Trouble with the Truth”), and Montgomery Gentry (“She Couldn’t Change Me”). He co-wrote “Fallin’ and Flyin’” with the late Stephen Bruton, the song featuring in the film Crazy Heart. He’s produced records for Delbert McClinton, Wynonna and Chris Knight. He’s played guitar for Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, and McClinton, along with leading his own band. He’s also performed in the persona of bluesman “Whitey Johnson.”
Texas Songbook presents songs written or co-written by Nicholson that cover the expected themes, including tall tales, cheating, fighting and womanizing. But it also serves as an instruction manual on the ingredients comprising the music of the Lone Star State, including rockabilly, Tex-Mex, rock ‘n roll and, of course, Texas swing. It features an all-star cast, including several players from Asleep at the Wheel, including Floyd Domino (piano), Jason Roberts (fiddle), David Sanger (drums), and Ray Benson (vocals). Other players include Joel Guzman on accordion, Tommy Detamore on steel guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, and Perry Colemen on background vocals.
Nicholson handles the lead vocals, and his pleasant baritone holds up quite well. His ability in arranging and the group’s proficiency at performing are evident throughout the album. The skilled solos drive the melody without being showy, and they are tied together with riffs and instrumental harmonies. The rhythm section provides solid support.
“She Feels Like Texas,” a Texas swing-style number, features instrumental breaks on steel guitar, piano, fiddle and accordion. Nicholson calls each soloist’s name a la Bob Wills, and punctuates the song with a Wills-styled “aah” at the end. Delbert McClinton plays harmonica and Nicholson plays lead guitar on “Same Kind of Crazy,” Nicholson’s rock ‘n roll-influenced hit written for George Strait. The rockabilly, up-tempo blues of “Messing with My Woman,” with its male backup singers and macho warning, sounds like it came straight out of early Sun Records. It includes nice work by Domino, Roberts, and Joe Manuel on guitar. “Live, Laugh, Love” shows a strong Tex-Mex influence, while “Bless ‘Em All” uses the McCrary Sisters as backup gospel singers.
Nicholson’s songwriting has a directness that disguises the structure behind it. Check out the implied call and response of “Fallin’ and Flyin’”:
I was goin’ where I shouldn’t go
Seein’ who I shouldn’t see
Doin’ what I shouldn’t do
And bein’ who I shouldn’t be
A little voice told me it’s all wrong
Another voice told me it’s alright
I used to think that I was strong
But lately I just lost the fight
This leads into a great hook:
Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ … for a little while
It’s an image everyone can relate to, and even implies a reference to Greek mythology. (I’m not sure if the reference is intentional – I don’t believe Icarus hailed from Texas).
Many of the songs show a sly sense of humor. “Talkin’ Texan” rationalizes the art of tall tales:
He’ll tell you ‘bout that ranch he owns, just outside of San Antone,
it’s nothing but a mobile home, parked out on the range.
And the only oil he ever struck, cost him fifteen hundred bucks
When he blew up his pickup truck, just outside La Grange.
He ain’t lyin’, he’s just talkin’ Texan,
He’s got a wild imagination under that old Stetson.
There’s nothing he ain’t seen or done, he’s always got the biggest one*,
He ain’t lyin’, he’s just talkin’ Texan.
*(Yeah, I’m pretty sure that implied reference was intentional).
Not every song hits the mark perfectly, however. The tribute “Listen to Willie” consists of a group of Willie Nelson song titles strung together. It’s a nice idea, but it starts to get old by the end of the second verse. And “Texas Ruby,” a catchy, well-arranged New Orleans-style boogie featuring some knockout piano from Marcia Ball, is encumbered by the lyrics which detail a none-too-subtle adolescent male fantasy.
But these are minor quibbles. Gary Nicholson is a master, and he’s surrounded himself with other masters. Texas Songbook is a tight, highly professional, well-executed album with the added virtue of not taking itself too seriously. It’s tough to go wrong if you have a good singer, good songs, good arrangements, and good players. If you have any interest at all in this kind of music, buy it.
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