Gary Nicholson and Me
Gary Nicholson has really done it all- and done it all well- in the music industry. He's a stellar player, writer and producer who has crossed genres with ease. And, if that's not enough to make you an instant fan, his friends include a list of musical royalty that's, in a word, jaw-dropping.
The Early Years
“I started playing when I was a kid," said Gary. "My mom bought me a plastic guitar and took me to see the Elvis movie Love Me Tender. When I left the movie, I wore it out playing it so much.”
Gary grew up in Garland, Texas with friends Freddie and Stevie Ray Vaughn (yes, that guy), hanging out as kids playing blues and rock. “Stevie was four years younger than us, and I think he had the attitude of ‘I’ll show you, big brother.’ He practiced constantly.”
One of his first bands was a Beatles Tribute Band. “We went out to the airport and had our picture taken by an airplane to make it look like we were traveling,” he joked.
Like any writer, Gary soaked in his early life experiences. One of his songs was inspired by the racial landscape he grew up with called “The Blues in Black and White.” He shared a couple of stories about touring through the South with a blues band in the mid-sixties.
“The black guys in the band would drop us two white guys off at the wannabe Motel 6 in town and then they’d go stay with their friends. We took turns going to get the cheeseburgers- either at a white or black restaurant,” he said.
Gary went to North Texas State to study music, but they didn't have a songwriting program so he quit school after two years and moved to Hollywood. (Sidenote: While at North Texas, he met a pre-Eagles Don Henley who played on some of his early demos.)
“I made $50 a week on my publishing deal if I created 20 lead sheets for demo sessions," he recalled. I was really slow at making charts, so I guess I made about 50 cents an hour. I could have made the same money collecting garbage, but I wanted to do music so I stuck with it.”
A Ticket to Nashville
Gary moved back to Texas in the mid-70’s and absorbed country music. In 1980, a song he’d written called “Jukebox Argument” ended up in the movie “Urban Cowboy” and that song became his ticket to come to Nashville.
He signed a publishing deal with Tree publishing (now Sony/Tree) and immediately began to get his feet wet to the Nashville writing scene. “I was used to writing songs when the inspiration hit me,” he recalls. “In Nashville you have sessions everyday.”
Gary spoke fondly of his early mentors at Tree. He recalls Harlan Howard telling the young writers, “Well juveniles, if you want you a swimming pool then write one. If you want you a Cadillac then write one.” He said sitting with these writers ‘spooked him into doing his best work.’
Gary's songwriting credits are impressive: from Garth Brooks and Alabama to Etta James and Robert Plant- check out his discography here.
"I try to stay open to the lines of inspiration that can turn into lyrical ideas," he said. "I've had to learn to balance the commercial aspects of songwriting with the art side of it in Nashville. I guess you could say that I've learned to compremise because I wanted songwriting to be a business. It's a business if you want it to be."
Still Going Strong
Gary performed "Fallin' and Flying" (a song he co-wrote with Texas troubadour Steven Bruton) that Jeff Bridges performed in the 2011movie "Crazy Heart." The song later became a kind of personal confession of Bruton, who passed away shortly after the film was released.
Gary has also worked as a producer with artists like Delbert McClinton, Pam Tillis, The Judds, Ringo Starr and many others.
“You have to have success in many areas to have a career,” he said. “I never thought I’d be a record producer but I found that it came to me in the doing of it. My job as a producer is to know who the right musicians to call are.”
On a recent project with Pam Tillis, they both decided that they were going to 'do what they wanted to' because the chances were silm that they would get radio airplay.
"It's sad that the greatest country artists of our time aren't getting played on country radio," Gary said.
When I asked what had changed about Nashville over the years he replied, "I don't think there's a mentoring process in place like there used to be. Old dudes sitting around helping you along, looking at a pitch sheet and getting together to write in rooms on Music Row."
On the plus side, he said that Nashville had much better Mexican food now then when he first moved to town.
By the time Gary finished our master class I had filled up an entire notebook. And, I didn't even get time to tell you about Whitey Johnson...