Johnny Nicholas & Friends,
Too Many Bad Habits
(independent, 2017)

Too Many Bad Habits' two discs resurrect decades-old recordings by Rhode Island-born, Texas-based guitarist Johnny Nicholas. The first of the CDs is remastered from a 1977 Blind Pig album, long out of print; the second revives unreleased, also remastered, studio material from the same period. In 2016, after long prodding, Nicholas persuaded the label to release Habits and related recordings to him. He has now issued them himself.

From the beginning to the present (see my review of his Fresh Air in this space on 22 October 2016) Nicholas has seen blues not, as do many of his contemporaries, as an "authentic" first draft of rock 'n' roll but as a unique form that evolved organically out of the larger American tradition of folk and vernacular sound. It ought to be addressed, respected and informed on its own terms. That still leaves plenty of room for creative interpretation, as the country and mid-century electric blues masters who serve as Nicholas's inspiration knew well, but there is never any doubt in these grooves what the roots are and in what soil they're planted.

Joining him on some of the cuts are blues giants Big Walter Horton (harmonica), Boogie Woogie Red (piano) and Johnny Shines (guitar), contemporaries of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters or both. (Having long deemed Shines among the most underrated artists in blues, I felt a measure of vindication the other day when my eyes fell upon genre authority Peter Guralnick's characterization of him as "the great.") Though the older (and, it must be said, black) performers are clearly the more seasoned, the young (and, yes, white) Nicholas feels at ease in their company. I'm pretty sure that in those shoes I wouldn't.

Nicholas's originals blend easily with compositions by Horton, Shines, Arthur Crudup, Tommy Johnson, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Johnson and tradition. The acoustic folk-blues original "Lonesome Traveler" could pass as an early hillbilly side, from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (not to be confused with Muddy Waters bandmate Jimmy Rogers) or Cliff Carlisle. Having played it with Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody, Nicholas knew (and I'm sure still knows) something about country in its formative years. There is also a splendid reading of Rogers's "Money, Marbles & Chalk" (not be confused with the Reno & Smiley bluegrass tune) with Shines and Horton providing backup along with drummer Martin Gross.

Among the elements that go into making these two discs so pleasurable is their relaxed, unforced quality. Nicholas and associates deliver the blues, in Mississippi Fred McDowell's famous phrase, straight and natural, which is as it should be. Besides doing wonders for your mood, Habits will have you coming back for more. And in the course of those repeat encounters, you'll be reminded that, as true blues is wont to do, it sounds simple only if you're not paying attention.

music review by
Jerome Clark

13 January 2018

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new