Acclaimed Songwriter Gary Nicholson and His Alter- Ego Whitey Johnson Release Two Very Different Albums on the Same Day – ‘The Great Divide’ and ‘More Days Like This’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

One gets the impression that a musician in need of a song or two could give Gary Nicholson a call and have a response the very next day, maybe even within hours. That’s likely happened more than once too. Nicholson’s name appears on 600-some recorded songs across country, rock, and blues from Willie Nelson, to Buddy Guy. Nicholson has a knack of working with the no-last-name -needed legends like B.B., Bonnie, Buddy, Delbert, and Ringo. Yet you’ll find him his name on albums by roots artists like Seth Walker, The Texas Horns, Mike Zito, David Bromberg, and Colin Linden., amongst many others.   He doesn’t put out his own albums very often but makes up for lost time here by issuing both a socially conscious Americana album, The Great Divide, and the bluesy/ R&B styled More Days Like This, the latter in the vein of his good friend Delbert McClinton, on the same day on the Texas Blue Corn music label.

Nicholson comments on the former, “We need music to soothe our souls, as it did in the days of ‘For What It’s Worth’ and ‘What’s Going On’ and “Give Peace a Chance.” Back then, music helped us get through the madness a little easier. With today’s troubles, I wasn’t hearing anybody singing about what’s on everybody’s mind every day, so I decided I had to put these songs out there.”  While that’s a gallant thought, it does call into question just what Nicholson is listening to. There are plenty of contemporary examples from Will Hoge (My American Dream) to Son Volt (Union) to The Felice Brothers (Undress), in roots music and Shemekia Copeland’s America’s Child which was just earned a BMA as Album of the Year.  That aside, Nicholson’s name and facility with words will certainly draw attention.

The Great Divide begins with a takeoff on “God Bless America” as Nicholson’s “God Help America,” which debuted with a video before the November mid-term elections, becomes a plea, a prayer for strength to repair our “Sweet, troubled home.” Ruthie Foster adds a soulful touch. Maybe the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Flyers, who made news recently by banning Kate Smith’s version of the anthem, should consider this one instead. Fat chance, just a whimsical thought. There’s a more hopeful approach in the gospel, rag-time sing-along with the McCrary Sisters in “Hallelujah Anyhow.”  Generally, though, the album has a roots and blues feel. “Trickle Down” could easily be covered by Taj Mahal or Keb’ Mo’, or both. (Not surprisingly, Nicholson contributed to that duo’s Grammy-winning Taj/Mo album. Nicholson’s “The Blues in Black and White,” recalls the racism he saw while touring with black musicians as a teen, that he’s now, unfortunately, seeing again. He covers the immigration topic in “Immigrant Nation,” decries the horrors of war in “Nineteen,” but also calls for unity in “We Are One” and the rallying closer “Choose Love.”

Nicholson and multi-instrumentalist John Jorgensen built the core of The Great Divide at Nicholson’s home studio and then invited a plethora of guests including Dan Dugmore, Colin Linden, Joe Robinson, Kenny Vaughn, John Cowan and Harry Stinson to name a few. More Days Like This was recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio in two days, also featuring a star-studded array of guests, many of whom play with or are associated with Delbert McClinton – Delbert, Kevin McKendree, Dana Robbins, Quentin Ware and Mike Joyce.  Linden and The McCrarys are again aboard as well for an album that is the antithesis of the former. It just makes you want to smile, dance, and sing along.

More Days Like This only has three never-recorded solo tunes, as it’s comprised mostly of co-writes with artists that he’s been working with for years. Blues and roots listeners will certainly recognize many of them such  a the Award-winning co-writes with Tom Hambridge for Buddy Guy – “The Blues Is Alive and Well” and “Skin Deep.” “Starting a Rumor” was done with Delbert and Guy Clark and appeared on Delbert’s album Acquired Taste. “If It’s Really Gotta Be This Way,” written with Donnie Fritts and Muscle Shoals legend Arthur Alexander, is an oft-covered tune, notably by Robert Plant, among others. One of the “never recorded” songs, “Soulshine,”  actually does appear on the recent offering from The Texas Horns, Get Here Quick.  The album is bookended by two R&B styled tunes co-penned with Seth Walker, the title track and “High Time.” These tunes are mostly gems, as evidenced by the popularity achieved in the hands of other artists. While Nicholson could never bring the deep soul of Buddy Guy to “Skin Deep,” for example, he does a commendable job throughout. It’s a can’t miss with the musicians supporting him.

Nicholson has been such a vital force in roots and blues music, it’s refreshing to see him come from behind the curtain and into the spotlight. His wordplay, ranging from serious subject matter to feel goods,  and his gift for melody and groove are on the display across these two discs. It’s easy to see why he is the “go-to” songwriter.

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