Gary Nicholson is a #1 hit songwriter, two time Grammy winning producer, recording artist, world traveling performer, and session guitarist.
In 2006 he was nominated to the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, in 2011 he was inducted into the Texas Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. There are over five hundred recordings of his songs in various genres including country, rock, blues, folk, bluegrass, and pop by such diverse artists as BB King, Garth Brooks, Bonnie Raitt, George Strait, Fleetwood Mac, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Etta James, John Prine, Dixie Chicks, Don Williams, Stevie Nicks, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Keb Mo, Ringo Starr, George Jones, The Neville Brothers, Reba McEntire, Robert Plant, Waylon Jennings, Patty Loveless, Kenny Chesney, Guy Clark and the list goes on.
In addition to his Grammy winning records with Delbert McClinton, who has recorded over fifty of his songs, he has produced records for The Judds, Wynonna, Pam Tillis, Billy Joe Shaver, T Graham Brown, Chris Knight, Taylor Hicks, Seth Walker and others. His work has been included in many major motion pictures and television, the song “Falling and Flying “ is featured in the Oscar winning film “Crazy Heart” performed by Jeff Bridges. ”Peace Dream” recorded by Ringo Starr was co-written by Gary, Ringo, and Gary Wright and features Paul McCartney on bass. Current songwriting credits include a song on the recent Grammy winning release by Bonnie Raitt, another co-written song with Ringo Starr for his new cd, and new recordings by George Strait, Dierks Bentley, The Mavericks, and a BB King/Buddy Guy duet.
“I’ve never found it difficult to ‘shift gears’ between different musical styles,” Nicholson says. “I let myself be dictated by the needs of the artist or of the writer I’m collaborating with. A lot of these guys are just looking for good lyrics. Songwriting is songwriting. A song is a song.”
As a guitarist, Gary Nicholson has brightened recording sessions and/or concert stages with the likes of Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Bobby Bare, Delbert McClinton and Tracy Nelson. During his long career, he has also played lead guitar in at least 10 of his own bands.
His musicianship led him into a career as a record producer. Gary Nicholson has produced two Grammy Award winning albums for Delbert McClinton. He has also guided projects by artists as diverse as “blue-eyed soul” singer Wynonna, Americana singer-songwriter Chris Knight, blues rocker Jimmy Thackery and Grand Ole Opry star Pam Tillis.
And then there’s the entertainer side of Gary Nicholson. Make that sides. He is actually at least three entertainers. A typical solo show will begin with him singing familiar hits he has written for others. After intermission, he reappears in the white suit, sunglasses and cap that are the uniform of “Whitey Johnson,” his bluesman alter ego. On other occasions, you might find him blistering a nightclub stage as a member of the rhythm-happy Fortunate Sons rock band. He has played The Bottom Line in New York, the House of Blues in Boston, Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, The Cactus Café in Austin, The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA and other prestigious venues.
“My kids are grown, so I’m having a great time performing live again. I’m doing stuff all over the country. I have a ‘Whitey Johnson’ band with different players in different cities. I’ve got a band in L.A. and one in Texas and another one in Nashville. I’ve got some guys in New York who can do it, too.”
This brings Gary Nicholson full circle. He began his career as a live performer in his native Texas. Fascinated by his older sister’s collection of classic rock ‘n’ roll records, he got his first guitar at age 10 so he could emulate the sounds of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and the other “founding fathers.” By the time he was in high school, he was in bands playing Beatles tunes.
“The first one was called The Valiants. Then it was The Catalinas. Then The Untouchables. During summer vacation in 1966, we got a job playing at The Cellar in Fort Worth. It was my first gig, and I’ve still never played a place rougher than The Cellar.”
The group played from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m., rotating sets with another band, Texas Storm, which included future stars Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. At another gig, the band accompanied strippers, but was fired when the women preferred to dance to a jukebox. The underage Untouchables got away with all of this by telling their parents they were working at an all-night bowling alley.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think coming of age in that Dallas / Fort Worth music scene was really important. There’s a certain guitar sound there. It was a great place to come up because there were so many great players around.”
Nicholson was soon captivated by local blues legend Freddy King, whose “Hide Away” had become a national hit in 1961. In college at North Texas State, the budding musician moved through a jazz phase, played lead guitar for the rock band The Nazz (“Hello It’s Me”) and then fell under the spell of the country-rock movement.
“We met The Flying Burrito Brothers. Gram Parsons came over to our little crash pad and we stayed up all night with him and had this amazing experience. He told us we should move to California. About a month or two later, we got in a car and drove straight through to the West Coast.”
Their first night in town, Parsons met the youngsters at The Palomino, country music’s California headquarters. Nicholson’s band won the club’s talent contest that night and met Delaney Bramlett, James Burton, Glen Campbell, Red Rhodes and Tony Booth. Parsons found the kids a place to stay and Rhodes introduced them to Linda Ronstadt and her producer, John Boylan. Known as The White Horse Brothers, the group soon attracted attention by performing Nicholson’s original songs with bluegrass harmonies.
Nicholson’s college classmates Don Henley and Jim Ed Norman joined him in L.A. Henley played drums with Nicholson’s band for its record-label showcase at The Troubadour, as well as on the demos that landed the group its recording contract. He then joined Ronstadt’s band, the group that evolved into The Eagles. Now renamed Uncle Jim’s Music, Nicholson’s group enlisted Boylan to produce its 1971 debut LP. Keyboardist Norman joined the band in time for its second album in 1972.
In 1973, Gary Nicholson married his college sweetheart Barbara and moved back to the Lone Star State. He joined Delbert McClinton’s band and also formed his own group, Hot Sauce. During the next several years both bands occupied him as a live musician. But he continued to write songs as well.
Meanwhile, his old buddy Jim Ed Norman was rising through the country-music ranks to become an in-demand record producer in Nashville. Nicholson sent him a tune called “Jukebox Argument,” which Norman recorded with singer Mickey Gilley. The song wound up on the soundtrack album Urban Cowboy 2.
“So in 1980, I finally got my courage up to move to Nashville,” Nicholson relates. “Jim Ed lured me. He gave me and my family a house to live in and a weekly ‘draw’ to write songs for his publishing company. I was just thrilled, because I’d been playing in country honky-tonks six nights a week, and on the seventh, I’d play a blues gig in Dallas. The possibility that I could write songs for a living was just amazing.”
To make money on the side, he continued taking road jobs. Guy Clark hired him as a guitar player on tour, then took him into the studio for the sessions that became the 1983 album Better Days. At his first Nashville recording session, Gary Nicholson played alongside such stellar players as Vince Gill, Hank DeVito, Tony Brown, Emory Gordy, Johnny Gimble and Rodney Crowell.
Out on the road with Billy Joe Shaver, Gary Nicholson became an eager pupil as the hit songwriter went over his lyrics with a red pencil in hand, grading them like a schoolteacher. Gail Davies also hired the guitarist for her road band. But country star Bobby Bare put an end to Nicholson’s touring days.
“In 1983, I had my first hit. That was ‘Your Love Shines Through’ by Mickey Gilley,” Nicholson recalls. “Then, in 1984 I had a No. 1 hit with ‘That’s the Thing About Love’ by Don Williams. Bare came on the bus one day, and he had a newspaper that had the record listed at No. 1. He laid that paper on my lap and said, ‘When we get back to Nashville, you need to help me find a new guitar player, because you need to stay home and write.’”
Gary Nicholson signed with the powerful Sony-ATV Tree publishing firm and adopted a strict work ethic that he maintains to this day. He came to the office daily, prepared to work with a variety of songwriting collaborators. “The Power of Love” (Charley Pride, 1984), “Break Away” (Gail Davies, 1985), “Working Without a Net” (Waylon Jennings, 1986) and “Brilliant Conversationalist” (T. Graham Brown, 1987) began a string of songwriting hits that has continued to the present.
Songs like “One More Last Chance” (Vince Gill, 1993), “The Trouble with the Truth” (Patty Loveless, 1997) and “She Couldn’t Change Me” (Montgomery Gentry, 2001) brought Gary Nicholson to the front ranks of Nashville’s songwriting army. After 14 years at Sony-Tree, he formed his own company, Gary Nicholson Music, in 1997.
His diversity as a songwriter is both unusual and impressive. Nicholson’s songs have been sung by country superstars such as George Jones, Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Anne Murray and Willie Nelson. But he has also provided much material to the r&b community, with recordings of his tunes by B.B. King, The Neville Brothers, Etta James, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Irma Thomas, Keb’ Mo,’ Junior Wells and more.
Nicholson’s songwriting talents have come to the attention of such pop/rock artists as Bonnie Raitt, Neil Diamond, Fleetwood Mac, String Cheese Incident, Ringo Starr, Los Lonely Boys, NRBQ, Robert Plant, Mountain and Gregg Allman. In the folk field, his songs have been recorded by the likes of John Prine, David Wilcox, Patty Griffin, John Sebastian, Paul Brady and Dave Olney. Even bluegrass artists have come to him for material – Doug Dillard, Vassar Clements, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, New Grass Revival and Peter Rowan among them.
He got his feet wet as a record producer by co-producing his own 1995 CD The Sky Is Not the Limit. In 1997, albums for River Road and Delbert McClinton furthered Nicholson’s producing reputation. T. Graham Brown’s acclaimed Wine Into Water (1998) came next. Nicholson produced Wynonna’s powerful New Day Dawning, plus The Judds’ landmark Reunion in 2000. McClinton won Grammy Awards with the Nicholson-produced Nothing Personal (2001) and Cost of Living (2005). Singer-songwriters Jessi Alexander and Chris Knight kept him busy in the studio in 2005-2006. Nicholson has also produced the upcoming Pam Tillis CD Rhinestoned.
“I’ve had an awful lot of fun,” says Gary Nicholson. “Nashville is so cool. I’m booked to co-write with someone almost every day. I have my ‘Whitey Johnson’ gigs. I have the Fortunate Sons. I have the studio work. It’s all good.”