Johnny Nicholas doesn’t get many headlines, but he is arguably one of the most important roots artists over the past five decades. Any time he releases an album, it should be a “must listen” occasion. You’ve often heard the term triple threat or even quadruple threat associated with both athletes and musicians. Yet, we could think of Johnny Nicholas as a triple regional catalyst, a term that is rare indeed. Johnny has the unique claim of influencing the music scenes in New England, Ann Arbor, MI, and Austin, TX. Nicholas went to the same Rhode Island high school as Duke Robillard and was influential in creating the thriving New England blues scene in area clubs. The historic Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 drew Nicholas to that city a year later and he forged a blues culture at the Blind Pig and Mr. Flood’s Party clubs, among others, by bringing some of the best blues musicians out of retirement for his gigs. As an original member of the Austin-based Asleep at the Wheel in the mid-’70s, Nicholas was a vital cog in establishing Austin as a live music mecca. Nicholas now holds court in yet another region, one where his career began unbeknownst to most, in Louisiana with his latest offering, Mistaken Identity.
These are not old sessions, however. As he’s done for the past decade, Nicholas is essentially playing with the late Stephen Bruton’s former band, the Resentments sans Jon Dee Graham. Personnel include Nicholas (acoustic/electric guitars, resonator, piano, harmonica, mandocello), Scrappy Jud Newcomb – acoustic/electric guitars, mandolin and vocals), Chris Maresh (electric and upright bass, vocals), John Chipman (drums, percussion Kurdish frame drum and vocals). In addition, ten others guest on various instruments and vocals. This is another showcase for the legendary Nicholas, about whom Bruton once said, “Johnny Nicholas is one of the best bluesmen ever, black or white.”
“Full Circle”could have been the title for this record, but Mistaken Identity is appropriate enough considering that Johnny and his music have defied being pigeonholed in one specific genre throughout his once restless life and musical journey. All but one of the songs on this album are originals that draw upon his many influences and experiences.
Most of the tracks on the new album, including the vocals, were recorded “live” with very few overdubs in Joel Savoy’s studio for Valcour Records. Nicholas says, “This album is a homecoming, bringing me back to the place where I cut my teeth and grew up musically on the prairies and bayou country of Southwest Louisiana in the ‘70s. Link Davis Jr (son of the legendary “Pappa” Link Davis) brought me to Basile and introduced me to Nathan Abshire, who lived behind the Bear Cat Lounge on Highway 190 (chronicled in the aptly titled track, “Highway 190”). Back then, the Basile routine went something like this: play music every night with Link, Nathan and oftentimes Dewey Balfa (who worked at a furniture store nearby), pull some mattresses down off the wall in a room behind the bar and sleep, get up and walk back to Mr. Nathan and his wife Ola’s tiny house behind the club to drink coffee and visit, return to the Bearcat where Jeanette Comeaux would be fixing rice and ‘something’, post up with Nathan out front and start drinking and playing music informally with anyone who stopped by and then get ready for the evening’s show to start. Next day, same as the last and on and on—Honky-Tonk Heaven!”
Nicholas left New England after high school, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains to find the sources of American music in Southeast Louisiana and Texas, so the album in that sense is a fond remembrance of his early influences. He lets us know right away where he is, with the rousing “She Stole My Mojo.” “Mule and the Devil” continues in a down-home blues vein imbued by mandolin and Eric Adcock’s clavinet. “Spark to a Flame” is a brisk harmonica-driven shuffle marked by the memorable chorus “Let it burn burn let the world turn turn.” Nicholas takes to the piano for the autobiographical infectious title track, again telling the story humorously as only he can (”But my heart was arrested when we made our connection/now I’m need of witness protection”).
”Guadalupe’s Prayer” is an acoustic song, another terrific story song about Pancho Villa, more in the vein of Joe Ely or one of the Texas singer-songwriters, but not out of left field as Nicholas has made his home in the Texas Hill country outside of Austin for years now. “Wanna Be Your Baby” is a blues shuffle that gives Nicholas and Newcomb a change to trade guitar licks. “Tight Pants” is a piano boogie, Little Richard style with big background choruses. “She Didn’t Think of Me That Way” is about a Creole girl, done in Tex-Mex style with the Baca brothers (Max on Bajo Sexto and Josh on accordion). Forgive me if I think back to Ely’s “She Never Spoke to Spanish to Me.” “Highway 190” encapsulates the long quote of the third paragraph. Appropriately, the only non-original is a Stephen Bruton song, the closer “River Runs Deep,” an endearing love song, imbued by Chris Stafford’s organ and Nicholas’ resonator.
While his 2016 Fresh Air was a stirring showcase of Nicholas’ various instrumental talents, songwriting, and skill at multiple genres, Mistaken Identity is even better. Johnny Nicholas is special. If you haven’t heard him after all these years, he’s as good or better now than he’s ever been.