Jeb Loy Nichols Mixes It Up In 'Parish Bar'
Jeb Loy Nichols may sing that he's "just a country boy," but the music surrounding that sentiment is designed to contradict him to his advantage. Nichols has made his cult by recording mixtures of country, jazz and soul music — often acoustic, much of it low-key to the point of enervating. But this new collection, which Nichols says he recorded over the past couple years — mostly at home in his spare time between other projects — is his most inviting album yet. It seems both offhand and sincerely curious in its musical explorations.
One of the songs on the album, "CountryMusicDisco45," is inspired by a real-life event, Nichols says: at a dance, with a DJ playing a lot of disco, the mix was suddenly enhanced by a Charlie Rich record. (Charlie Rich was a big star primarily in the 70s, for ballads like "Behind Closed Doors.") In a similar way, Jeb Loy Nichols' song and its lyrics emphasize how much he likes to mix things up — that he feels crossing genres is essential to him to keep his music vital. That certainly comes across on this song, "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome Too," a song credited to one James B. Smith, but just as often ascribed to a collaboration between Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. Nichols, however, radically rearranges this bluegrass number.
As the new beats in "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome Too" prove, Nichols has a knack for rearranging songs without turning them into stunts. The sentiment about being blue and lonesome comes across as effectively as it did in its 50-year-old country context, even if Nichols has nothing on Bill Monroe's band when it comes to vocals and instrumentation. In fact, Nichols' tendency is to murmur words in a snoozy manner, a casual conversational croon that owes a lot to Mose Alllinson and Leon Redbone. For every bit of earned intimacy, there's a hint of too-cool-by-half. It's a tone he drops on "Satan's Helper," a cover of Tom T. Hall's country song about alcohol that benefits from Nichols' straightforward singing.
If his self-conscious eclecticism is what prevents Nichols from getting more than a toe-hold into the mainstream, it's also what keeps him interesting. Essentially a music bohemian — drifting though styles in the same way he's lived in and left boho-friendly places like Manhattan and Austin, Texas — Nichols is like a modern-day Beat poet, he rides rhythms wherever they take him. As Parish Bar proves, sometimes pleasant aimlessness is its own reward.
Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.