Johnny Nicholas & the Texas All-Stars
Rockin’ My Blues to Sleep: Texas/Louisiana Blues & Dance Hall Favorites
Hill Top 105

When musicians make it sound as easy as it does here, it’s often hard to pinpoint why an album is so fine, but here goes. First off, it’s not easy: Texas and Louisiana musics are both rhythmically demanding and require guitar and horn chops beyond the usual. This CD benefits from a sure-handed rhythm section, lean, slicing guitar work that strikes a fine balance between raw and finesse, and a Gulf Coast horn section that swings and sways with that Texicali flavor.

And great material, with Nicholas originals at the beginning and end that bookend a collection of remakes of classics both ultra-familiar (Guitar Slim’s "Things I Used to Do") and obscure (Hank Ballard’s "In the Doorway Cryin’"). Nicholas doesn’t even change the arrangements that much, and he often adopts the vocal style of the singer who first cut a particular track, but everything has his undeniable, unmistakable personal touch all over it.

Johnny Nicholas came of age in the ’60s blues scenes of Providence, Detroit and Chicago, fronting Ann Arbor’s Boogie Brothers in the early ’70s and then moving on to Texas, where he played Cajun music with Link Davis and western swing with Asleep at the Wheel.

Around 1980, Nicholas quit the music business to start a family with his wife Brenda and to build up their Hill Top Café, which would be the state’s finest purveyor of Greek-Cajun-Lone Star comfort food — even if it wasn’t the only one — in the central Texas Hill Country outside Austin and San Antonio.

But in the early ’90s, with the kids growing and the restaurant packed nightly, he returned to the blues, playing a little around home and a little more on the festival circuit and working with carefully hand-picked players from San Antonio and Austin. In 1994, he cut Thrill on the Hill for the Antone’s label, and now comes this raucous disk of regional roadhouse raunch played with that elusive blend of abandon and control.

Thus the crying Nicholas slide and eternal verities of "Rain Down Tears," the swampy undertow of "I’m a Fool to Care," the beautiful horn harmonies of "Where You At?" (nobody gets that shrimp-boats-bobbing-in-the-Gulf sound down better than Rocky Morales and his compadres in the West Side Horns, but it doesn’t hurt to have help from Kaz Kazanoff, too).

Nicholas’ guitar captures the crying, jagged backwoods edges of Guitar Slim on "Reap What You Sow," while this version of "Things I Used to Do" faithfully echoes Slim’s distorto guitar. Guest vocalist Marcia Ball cries mercy on the shuffle’n’sugar of Bobby Bland’s "Woke Up Screamin’," while "In the Doorway Cryin’" is a heartbreak ballad. "Mama, Talk to Your Daughter" features great vocals and horns that repeat a single phrase over and over until you think your player’s stuck.

The horns sing and the guitar rings around the melody on "Before I Grow Too Old," co-written and first recorded by Fats Domino but turned into one of swamp pop’s most longing, just-out-of-reach gems by Tommy McLain. Nicholas gets topical on T-Bone Walker’s "The Hustle Is On" and the insouciant "My Last Meal," one of his concert staples for decades, but if you don’t think this Jimmy Rogers novelty is also topical today in its own way, you haven’t been keeping up with news reports on executions in Texas). "Rockin’ My Blues to Sleep" is an apt piece of blues as cure for whatever ails you, while "Boogie Back to Texas" wraps things up in fine fashion.

Throughout this CD, the solos and horn riffs are kept short and sweet. These guys all burn, but they play with the economy and authority of vets who say a lot with very little — which you can do when you know your stuff like they do. There’s little flash here, but lots of explosive musicianship. It’s the band attack that counts most, after all. And Nicholas’ band makes it all sound just plain right.

— John Morthland

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