Central Texas folks might think of Johnny Nicholas as restaurateur; others know him as one of the most experienced, authentic, and versatile blues performers.
Growing up in Connecticut, he migrated to Ann Arbor as a member of the Boogie Brothers in the early ’70s, later to land in Austin after joining Asleep At The Wheel. Over time, he recorded with Big Walter Horton, Johnny Shines, Snooky Pryor, Geoff Muldaur, and others.
In 1980, he opened the Hilltop Cafe, 90 miles west of Austin, in a converted gas station where Nicholas still doubles as host and bandleader, but you might see David Grissom, Jimmie Vaughan, Kathy Valentine, or even Billy Gibbons and Eric Clapton enjoying a meal and sitting in.
Nicholas has released a steady stream of solo albums, and his latest continues the high standard they have set. While he handles guitar, piano, harmonica, and vintage National resonator, Scrappy Jud Newcomb supplies additional guitars and mandos. Sprinkled among 11 strong originals are Sleepy John Estes’ “Kid Man Blues” (featuring Cindy Cashdollar’s lap steel and Nicholas’ baritone guitar) and a rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” that makes you forget 90 percent of the song’s many covers.
You can’t cop mileage and emotion – both of which Nicholas has in spades.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February ’17 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.