Carving out an identity in the roots and blues music realm these days must feel like trying to engrave your initials into an iron skillet with a pencil. Thankfully, Johnny Nicholas doesn’t have to try.
Nicholas began playing in rock bands in the early 1960s. Finishing high school, he hopped trains and hitchhiked up, down and across America, aiming for the music, and its makers, that thrilled him. One of his first thrills, which made a lasting impression, was playing with the local cats behind the Bearcat Lounge in the remote Louisiana bayou.
He’s also played honky-tonk, rockabilly and Tejano along the way. In Chicago, he went deep with blues legends such as Big Walter Horton and Johnny Shines. Nicholas even joined Texas country/swing kings Asleep at the Wheel for a good long spell. More than 60 years down the long, snaky line, Johnny Nicholas has come full circle.
“Mistaken Identity” was recorded by Joel Savoy (son of Cajun music ambassadors Marc and Ann Savoy) at Savoy’s Valcour Records studio, just miles from the site of the Bearcat.
Nicholas’ identity clearly unfolds as that of an expert at damn near anything. That’s what caught Savoy’s ear. Nicholas now enjoys the honor of being the first non-Louisiana-based artist to record at Valcour in its 14 years in business.
“Mistaken Identity” unfolds like select chapters in Nicholas’ musical life, captured with warm heart, and skilled, enthusiastic drive. Nicholas sings in a worn-leather voice full of character, and plays guitars, piano and harmonica. Lone Star-celeb Scrappy Jud Newcomb also plays lead guitars, and bassist Chris Maresh and drummer John Chipman propel the rhythms. Several of Savoy’s friends dropped by to add backing vocals, bajo sexto, accordion, organ, and clavinet.
The songs breathe beautifully.
- Like a fat hook cast toward a swamp, “She Stole My Mojo” buries itself to the hilt, everything about a great, greasy rock ‘n’ roll song instantly causing ass muscles to shimmy.
- “The Mule and the Devil” then slinks, its sage blues advice strong on faith and unyielding constitution.
- “Spark to a Flame” darts ahead, the country roots of it bursting into a hoedown of picking, sawing, and testifying.
- For the title song, the band settles naturally into an infectious second-line rhythm, and for “She Didn’t Think of Me That Way” a Southwestern lilt similar to one Joe Ely has plied.
- Nine of the ten tunes are Johnny Nicholas specials, but he chose “The River Runs Deep” by the late, not-celebrated-enough Stephen Bruton to close the album. Its subtle nuances and sweet stabs of slide guitar call to mind John Hiatt and the Goners.
A “something for everyone” kind of album, Johnny Nicholas’ “Mistaken Identity” never fails to inspire.
- Johnny Nicholas
- ‘Mistaken Identity’
- Label: Valcour Records
- Release: Digital Aug. 28; CD/vinyl Oct. 2
‘Mistaken Identity’ Track Listing and Credits
- She Stole My Mojo
- Mule and The Devil
- Spark To A Flame
- Mistaken Identity
- Guadalupe’s Prayer
- Wanna Be Your Baby
- Tight Pants
- She Didn’t Think Of Me That Way
- Highway 190
- River Runs Deep
All songs written by John Nicholas, Dynaflow Music BMI, Administered by BMG, except River Runs Deep, written by Stephen Bruton, Brutunes Music BMI, Administered by Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp)
Johnny Nicholas – Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Resonator Guitar, Piano, Harmonica, Mandocello|
Scrappy Jud Newcomb – Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Mandolin and Vocals
Chris Maresh – Electric and Upright Bass, Vocals
John Chipman – Drums and Percussion, Kurdish Frame Drum and Vocals
Max Baca-Bajo Sexto
Josh Baca- Accordion
Chris Stafford- Organ
Eric Adcock- Clavinet
Kelli Jones- Vocals and Tambourine
Sabra Guzman- Vocals
Kelley Mickwee- Vocals
Alice Spencer- Vocals
Walt Wilkins- Vocals
Bill Small- Vocals