Gary Nicholson – The Great Divide
Anyone who pays attention to songwriting credits will recognize the name Gary Nicholson. With more than 600 titles to his credit, his songs have been recorded by a wide range of artists from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Delbert McClinton, and on to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. That resume clearly places him at the top of the list for songwriters of any generation.
For his latest solo effort, Nicholson turns his attention to the many issues facing our nation. Like many Americans, he is struggling to make sense of how things have become so fractured and divisive. His carefully chosen lyrics often break issues down to their basic level, leaving it to listeners to ponder why it is easier to live with hate rather than respect, if not love. Much of the instrumental backing is acoustic, which deepens the introspective nature of the recording. Nicholson’s smooth vocals serve to bring life to his messages, adding his acoustic guitar to the instrumental mix.
The opening track, “God Help America,” is a somber reworking of “God Bless America,” with Ruthie Foster adding her amazing voice with Nicholson’s to send out a heartfelt plea to allow freedom’s light to continue to shine. Chris Carmichael is a one-man string quartet, the deep tones of his cello anchoring the vocals. The mood lightens a bit on “Soft Spot” as Nicholson relates tales of his upbringing in Texas, where his parents were always ready with a helping hand for those in need. “Trickle Down” is a pointed country blues tune questioning the effects of the fashionable economic theory, sparked John Jorgenson’s bright mandolin picking and Jim Hoke’s mournful harmonica licks. Jorgenson is the project’s MVP, playing a variety of stringed instruments, percussion, keyboards, saxophones, and the autoharp on “Soft Spot”.
Nicholson celebrates our nation’s history on “Immigrant Nation,” reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters in the land of the free – and that walls can also trap that very soul from lighting the rest of the world. Shawn Camp guests on acoustic guitar. The title track makes references to job loss, the environment, health care, and other issues, leading Nicholson to finally ask, “If we are all in this together, why the Great Divide?”. Backing musicians include Lynn Williams on drums, Steve Mackey on bass, Hoke on harp, and Siobhan Kennedy on backing vocals. With a helping hand from the McCrary Sisters – Regina, Ann, and Freda – Nicholson sings praises for the gift of life on “Hallelujah Anyhow,”, with Catherine Marks taking us to church with her fine work on piano and the Hammond B3 organ and Kenny Vaughan on electric guitar.
“The Troubles” reflects on the endless, repetitive cycle of discord on issues that reach back across centuries with little progress on resolutions, with Carmella Ramsey playing a haunting fiddle as Nicholson postulates on our failure to respect the basic human condition. Blues comes knocking as Nicholson takes on racism on “Blues In Black And White,” presenting incidents from his own life to frame Dr. Colin LiMartin Luther King’s dream of the day when we can live as one. The song’s brooding musical landscape includes a stirring contribution from Colin Linden on an electric resonator guitar and Kirk “Jellyroll” Johnson on harmonica. “Nineteen” is a pensive lament about sending some of the best and brightest of our younger generations off to fight for freedom in foreign lands, with Dan Dugmore framing Nicholson’s voice, using tones from his steel guitar.
At the end, Nicholson reminds us again that the answer to all of our strife is right there for the taking, if we will only “Choose Love,” with Glen Worf on bass, Harry Stinson on drums, Joe Robinson on nylon string guitar, and John Cowan on backing vocals.
This disc is a powerful statement from Gary Nicholson, one that many artists might shy away from. While navigating the minefield of emotionally-charged issues, Nicholson never resorts to shouting out in anger or preaching with the absolute assurance of political correctness. Instead, he offers up astute observations and gentle questions that gradually seep into your consciousness, eventually leaving you to wonder why is it so hard to make this work.