Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Q-and-A and audio: Country music writer and Grammy winning producer Gary Nicholson
Nicholson (or Whitey Johnson, as he's also known by) performs in Fort Worth on Friday and in Dallas on Saturday.
After 350 songs, a title tune in the Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, and getting inducted into the Texas Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, it may seem as though Gary Nicholson has run the gamut on country and blues songwriting. But with an upcoming Texas tour and two new albums on the way, the native Dallasite who’s been in the music biz for over 30 years is just getting warmed up.
Growing up, Nicholson went to North Texas State, studying music and playing in a few bands around town. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 20 and caught the eye of Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He stayed in L.A. until 1973, then moved back home to Garland when he married his college sweetheart. In the early ‘80s, he reconnected with old bandmate Jim Ed Norman, who happened to need a song for the not-yet-released James Bridges film Urban Cowboy. Nicholson landed himself on the soundtrack, in addition to a full-time songwriting gig in Nashville.
“One More Last Chance” -- Gary Nicholson -- Nashville Songbook – Vol. 1“One More Last Chance” -- Gary Nicholson -- Nashville Songbook – Vol. 1
Since his first No. 1 single recorded by Don Williams back in 1984, Nicholson’s been churning out country music hits for everyone from George Strait, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood to Robert Plant, Etta James, and Ringo Starr. Recently he’s performing on his own playing contemporary country; he plays blues under a white-suited, dark-sunglassed alter ego named Whitey Johnson.
Pegasus caught up with the Texas titan to ask what it was like performing with Jeff Bridges, what advice he has for rookie songwriters, and who makes him star-struck – even though he's recorded with almost everyone.
Pegasus News: It’s definitely not the first time you had a song in a movie. What made this movie [Crazy Heart] so special?
Gary Nicholson: Well for me, I co-wrote that song with my friend Stephen Bruton, who passed away from cancer last year. And Stephen was a great friend of mine for many, many years, and we wrote quite a few songs together. He played with Kristofferson on the road for 22 years. He also played with Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan and some others … So anyways, Stephen’s involvement in the Crazy Heart movie and the fact that I wrote the song with him, that’s what made it special for me.
I got to go and perform the song of mine and Stephen’s with Jeff Bridges and T-Bone Burnett during the time of the Oscars. So it was really great to get to do that and be around during that time.
What about the songwriting process do you love so much?
It’s just the idea that you’re going to be able to express something in a certain way that you haven’t heard expressed before, and you’re going to be able to write something that’s going to have an emotional connection with the listener in a way that’s fresh and new. Songwriting as a profession is great because it demands that you be creative every day, and it’s always something new. That’s what I love about it; even more than [that] -- I love to play music. I was a guitar player by profession before I had any successes as a songwriter, and I enjoyed playing music and performing, but writing really drives everything.
“Everything I Sing The Blues” from the unreleased upcoming album – Whitey Johnson – Gentleman of Leisure“Everything I Sing The Blues” from the unreleased upcoming album – Whitey Johnson – Gentleman of Leisure
What advice would you give to beginning songwriters?
I think my advice would be to just fall in love with the process of writing songs, and if you enjoy it enough I think that joy will come through in your writing. And if you’re serious about it to work at it. Until I was 30 years old, songs just kind of came to me when they came to me. And I’d write songs casually when they occurred, but when I moved to Nashville, I realized that people get up every morning and drink their coffee and go to work and write songs all day. It’s a discipline of applying yourself consistently that you know if you work hard at it enough and put that much energy into anything, you’ll get some results.
Out of all these people that you’ve worked with, including Ringo Starr, who were the greatest performers?
I think one of my favorite collaborators is Delbert McClinton because he’s my best friend and we hang out together all the time anyway, whether we’re writing or not. I’ve played in his bands at different times and I’ve produced four of his records, two of the four have one Grammys for best contemporary blues record. And another one was nominated as well. So we’ve had a lot of success together.
As far as the excitement level of writing with somebody, I think it was really exciting to write with Ringo just because you’re in the room with a Beatle. It’s hard to get past the fact that he’s a Beatle.
Do you ever get star-struck at this point?
Well, if I get as far as the writing a song with somebody, it’s not like being star-struck. It’s being respectful of who they are more than anything, because you really have to leave all that stuff behind. If you’re collaborating with somebody, you have to be totally honest and willing to mix it up.
But I feel like if I was put in the room to co-write a song with Merle Haggard, I’d probably be star-struck.
I read that you’re working on more albums. Can you talk about the new stuff?
I’m going to go to Texas and record with the members of Asleep at the Wheel. And I’m going to have some of the members of Willie Nelson’s band …
So I’m making a Gary Nicholson singer/songwriter record that’s all the co-writers of the record are Texans, and I’m only using Texas musicians and recording it in Texas. And the songs are about Texas. There’s one song that is made up of Willie Nelson song titles … It’s going to be a lot of fun.
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