Johnny Nicholas,
Fresh Air
(independent, 2016)

A longtime figure on the Austin scene, singer/guitarist Johnny Nicholas is more rooted than most, and thus not deserving of the vacuous "Americana" genre designation some would assign him. His engagement with blues spans decades, during which he shared stages with outstanding downhome-blues figures who ranged from Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood Jr. to Johnny Young and Hound Dog Taylor. He swims, in short, in deep waters.

Even so, on occasion Fresh Air brings to mind a couple of other folk- and blues-based artists of whom the same can be said: Ry Cooder and Geoff Muldaur. The opening cut, "Moonlight Train," features a vocal anyone who knows Muldaur's distinctive tone will recognize (and that definitely includes Nicholas, among the Sheiks on Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks' eponymous CD, reviewed here on 14 November 2009). Nicholas's reading of Tennessee songster Sleepy John Estes's "Kid Man Blues" is more Cooder than Estes. On his 1972 masterpiece Boomer's Story Cooder cut the song as "Ax Sweet Mama" -- "ax" being Estes's vernacular pronunciation of "ask," not an airing of homicidal intent.

In other words, if you've been listening long enough, you'll know how Nicholas's approach takes its shape, namely from a trolling of the American musical tradition evolved from purer approaches to blues and folk into explorations of jazz, vintage pop and r&b while never quite abandoning first loves and original inspirations. That pretty much defines the albums Cooder and Muldaur were releasing, separately and (in Cooder's case) famously, in the 1970s.

Even knowing as much, you are likely to enjoy yourself in these 13 cuts, 11 of them originals, more than an hour's running time in all. The sounds are of another time, whether you count that time as the 1960s blues/folk revival or the actual blues and folk songs that revival resurrected and celebrated. Here they function as the point of departure. Naturally, Nicholas sets the arrangements in the 21st century; still, while doing so in masterly fashion, he is never afraid to let his roots show. And one has to grant him full respect in one particular regard. One usually wants to rush frantically to the closest exit when somebody tries his luck at a Howlin' Wolf classic; yet Nicholas manages to turn Wolf's "Backdoor Man" into the album's standout cut. It's the same song, only brilliantly different.

The striking original "Sweet Katrina" tips the hat to Tommy Johnson's 1928 "Cool Drink of Water Blues," which 28 years later Wolf would reimagine as "I Asked for Water." These are two of the most acclaimed songs and performances in the genre's history, but "Katrina" is its own self, the references delivered with a good-natured wink. Written with the ubiquitous Gary Nicholson, "Play Me (Like You Play Your Guitar)" is something of an over-the-top parody of raunchy blues metaphor, but it will make you laugh; at least it did me. The Cajun-flavored "Bayou Blues" is also pretty funny, in the way of a story it would be hard to make up. In a whole other mood, the haunting "Roll On, Mississippi" feels like a grand, immortal folk song from another era. Deep waters indeed.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 October 2016

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