Featured Interview – Nick Nixon

nicknixon6It was one of those profound moments in life, a time when things almost come full circle.

A time when a student has the opportunity to thank his teacher for lessons learned.

Even if that teacher didn’t realize at the time that he was really teaching.

“There was this man back when I was young – Raymond Manier – he didn’t go to our church, but his church would visit ours and he would sing. And I so badly wanted to sing like that man … I never told him that, but I really wanted to sing like he could,” said iconic Nashville bluesman James ‘Nick’ Nixon. “Then over 20 years later, we were doing a Blues in the Schools in Lebanon, Tennessee and there was a man that worked at the school there as a custodian. And it was him. I told him who I was and he said, “Yeah, I remember you.’ We got to talking and I told him that I wanted to become a singer because of hearing him sing in church. He said that he never knew that, so that was a special moment … really exciting.”

Even though he’s now in his 70s, Nixon’s voice still has all the power and energy of a man half his age and it’s crystal clear that this man was born to sing the blues. Nixon’s pairing with guitarist Andy Talamantez on the Andy T – Nick Nixon Band’s superb Drink Drank Drunk (Delta Groove) is proof positive of that.

The album has entrenched its way into almost everyone’s ‘best of 2013’ list and was up for New Artist Debut Release at this year’s Blues Blast Awards.

According to Nixon, by the time they exited the studio, the band was pretty sure they had created something special.

“I had an idea it was going to be good, because of where we recorded it and because of the young man that produced us. I just had a feeling it was going to do real good,” he said. “We cut the CD in Dallas, Texas at Audio Dallas Recording Studio and had Anson Funderburgh producing it. Plus, we got signed to Delta Groove, one of the greatest labels in the world. So, with a label like that behind you, I just don’t see how it (the record) could be anything but good, you know?”

nicknixon1Nixon, who handled the vocal chores on the disc, is also quite an accomplished guitarist, but for this project, he left the six-string duties in the more-than-capable hands of Andy T and Funderburgh.

“I’ve been having a little carpal tunnel trouble, so that kind of got in the way,” he said. “But I really wanted to spend most of my time (in the studio) putting an emphasis on my vocal work … which looks like it’s getting better with age.”

Enjoying an album in the ‘here and now’ is one thing, but to be able to put that same album on two months or two years or even 20 years from now and still enjoy it is something else altogether. Because try as they might, not all recordings are built to stand the test of time. However, Drink Drank Drunk surely is.

“Well, one thing about that is, the material has got to be saying something. It’s got to be tunes that have people wanting to hear them over and over,” said Nixon. “The tunes have to have an almost universal appeal to them. When we first started working on this album, we just knew the material was going to be good.”

Good might be an understatement and knowing they’ve got a really good thing going, the band is keeping momentum on their side by returning to Audio Dallas Recording Studio with Anson Funderburgh in tow in December to start work on a follow-up to Drink Drank Drunk.

“Anson’s quite a well-known musician and the man is just plain good. He can play … he can really play and his style is different from a lot of players. I don’t know if it’s because he’s from Texas or because of the food he ate, but he’s good,” laughed Nixon. “And another thing, he’s a nice individual to be around. He’s a lot of fun and that sure doesn’t hurt. Plus, he says good things about me, so that means a lot, too.”

By the way that Andy T and Nixon mesh so perfectly on the disc, it’s forgivable if one thinks that the two have been playing side-by-side and have been band-mates for several years. However, that’s not the case.

nicknixon3“I was having a blues jam at the time and I wasn’t that hard to contact. Andy had heard about me and ran into my cousin – the Queen of Nashville Blues – Marion James, and she told him he needed to come see me,” Nixon explained. “So he found me and said, ‘Man, we need to get together.’ So we put this group together and got a bunch of players together that are really good and just took off from there.”

In addition to the afore-mentioned Andy T and Nick Nixon, band members include: Larry van Loon (keyboards); Jim Klingler (drums); Sam Persons (bass); Markey (backup vocals); and Dana Robbins (saxophone).

“It’s a really wonderful band and they’re good to travel with,” said Nixon. “We have a lot of fun together.”

Nixon was born and raised in Nashville and got his first taste of singing through the gospel tunes he learned every Sunday in church.

“My mother took us to church every Sunday. Back then we really didn’t have nothing and we had to ride the bus to church. I was raised with no running water, no electricity until I was nine years old. But I didn’t miss it that much, because I never had it, you know? But when we moved from west Nashville to the north side, that’s when I thought I’d moved to Heaven. But I used to sit around in church and watch all these people sing so good and play the tambourine and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”

That ‘want to’ soon developed into a burning desire and Nixon was quickly on his way to becoming an important part of the musical mix in Nashville and he would go on to play with the likes of Lazy Lester, Rufus Thomas, Cootie Stark and Scotty Moore, to name a few. As the 1950s gave way to the ‘60s, Nixon crossed paths and became fast friends with future Band of Gypsies and Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player Billy Cox, along with the group’s soon-to-be legendary namesake.

“Billy and I go way back to the ‘60s. I met Billy and Jimi (Hendrix) around the same time, in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They were both in the army and were paratroopers …they didn’t necessarily want to be in the army, but they had joined,” laughed Nixon. “When they got out of the army, they moved to Nashville and got ‘em a little room there. You’d see Jimi just out walking the streets with his guitar … he just loved that thing. All Jimi wanted to do was just woodshed and play that guitar; that’s all he wanted to do. Billy and I still get together every once in a while, but he’s been pretty busy lately with that Hendrix thing (the Experience Hendrix Tour, which is gearing up for another run next year). Billy’s another good person to be around and really, Jimi was, too.”

nicknixon4A person probably didn’t have to look too hard to notice that Hendrix, as well as Cox, was not suited for a very long career in the military. But pre his hook-up with Chas Chandler and trip over to England that helped turn him into an international superstar, was there any indication that Jimi Hendrix would re-write the manual on how to play guitar back when Nixon knew him in Nashville?

“No, I had no idea. Jimi always thought that we really didn’t dig his playing. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand it, but it was just totally different,” he said. “It was so different that it almost sounded wrong. It was psychedelic and it was just so far ahead of its time. Jimi took all these licks from all these different people and put them together and came up with this weird sound. But back then, he really didn’t stand out much. He was good, but just different. Then later, he went over to England and then things changed in a hurry for him and really, for the whole music scene.”

Hendrix may not have been a very big influence on Nixon’s guitar playing, but the two did share some common ground when it came to the cats that really inspired them to pick up the instrument and play.

“I always liked Freddie King and Albert Collins and locally around here, we had a guy named Johnny Jones and I always wanted to play like Johnny; he was really good,” said Nixon. “Jimi even got some of his licks from him. When Johnny was playing down on Jefferson Street, Jimi would come and sit in and learn from him. Johnny was a great guitar player.”

His chops on the guitar are certainly formidable, but singing has become Nixon’s true calling card over the years. And it may not poke its head to the surface when he’s belting out the blues – or sweetly crooning R&B and soul – but Nixon has extensive experience in a much older form of singing.

“When I was in high school, I sang opera. Our high school choir director – William Lathon, who was a famous opera singer – found out I had this voice and he had me singing opera. It was kind of put on me and I really didn’t like that style of music,” he said. “But I did it and the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was to un-do that opera-style singing when I started in with rock-n-roll and the blues. But I did learn a lot of voice control (singing opera) that I still use now. The clarity of opera is something that I still use, too, but I just put a more gravel, a little more dirt with it when I’m singing the blues.”

nicknixon5Nashville’s soul/R&B/blues scene would definitely be something totally different had Nixon not been such an integral part of it for the past five-plus decades. He was a long-time member of The New Imperials and also sang lead for King James and The Sceptres – one of Music City’s first integrated bands. But maybe even more important than all that, Nixon has always been involved in helping to perpetuate the blues, as a guitar teacher and mentor to many of the city’s aspiring young players through Nashville’s Parks and Recreation Department. This behind-the-scenes effort even earned Nixon a Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) award from the Blues Foundation.

“I was doing Blues in the Schools for about 15 years with my partner Shannon Williford who is a great blues harmonica player from Baton Rouge and who also had a job teaching music with Parks and Rec. I was sitting in the lobby one day and got a phone call from Shannon and he said, ‘Hey man! We won a KBA award!’ And I didn’t know what he was talking about. We were members of a blues society, but I had forgotten what a KBA award was … I thought it was some kind of a marble-shooting contest or something,” he laughed. “Then when he said Keeping the Blues Alive and I realized what it was for, that turned out to be one of the best phone calls I’ve ever gotten in my life. I’d never won or been honored with anything like that before. That’s something that will stick with you for the rest of your life.”

Music hasn’t always been Nixon’s sole focus; at one time he played some high school and college football.

“Well, I did play some football, but I ended up getting hurt and that cut things short so I went back to music full-time,” he said. “But I still have the limp to prove it.”

Nashville is a lot like a huge musical melting pot and has always been a ‘go-to’ locale for a lot of talented players – in all genres – from all over the world. Chances are if you ask a member of the city’s thriving musical scene where they’re from, Nashville would not be an answer given on very many occasions. But for Nixon, Nashville always has, and always will be home, and that can’t help but come through in his music.

“Well, the first thing is, being in Nashville sure makes me feel like I’m at home and when you feel that way, you feel protected in whatever you do. And when you have other people (musicians) coming to your area, you know that you’ve got to be in a good place … a special place,” he said. “And being born here is a dynamite feeling. Sometimes I call myself the old country boy, but I’m always proud when I say I’m from Nashville.”

For more info on Nick visit this website at www.andytband.com

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2013 Blues Blast Magazine.

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