Gary Nichols may be country music's new "guitar slinger," but don't mistake him for a "tenderfoot" or a "greenhorn."
The hotshot instrumentalist, singing wonder and songwriting champ fits the classic definition of a "guitar slinger," but he's no novice. This is a role he was born to play.
Although still in his 20s, Gary Nichols has been rocking the clubs of Northern Alabama and Southern Tennessee for nearly a decade. And that's just his most recent musical history. This is a guy who was given a ukulele at age 11 months, who was warbling tunes at age 3, who won his first talent contest at age 5, who got his first paying music job and joined his first band at age 6, who played in honky-tonks at age 7, who was touring regionally at age 13, who performed in Nashville at age 17 and who had his first recording session at age 19.
Gary Nichols began playing guitar seriously when he was 6 years old. By the time he was 9, he was also proficient on bass and drums. He started playing piano in church at age 12, and somewhere along the way, he picked up mandolin and trumpet. Oh, and he's a world-class singer to boot.
One listen to the thrilling rocker "Riverbed" or the sky-high power ballad "I Can't Love You Anymore" is enough to inform you that you are in the presence of vocal greatness. The ear-catching, alcohol-recovery song "Stay Strong," the swampy groove and survivor lyric of "No Mississippi" and the autobiographical rocker "Going Fast" demonstrate Gary Nichols' additional prowess as a songwriter.
All of these illustrations of his oversized talent appear on his debut collection for Mercury Records. So does the rip-roaring, wild, lathered-up party anthem "Southern Girls." The sunny and bouncing "We're Gonna Make Some Love," his well-crafted composition "Unbroken Ground," the Southern-fried rocker "Homegrown," the funky groove tune "Love for a Living" and his sexy ballad "Makin' Love to You" are other textures encountered on this outstanding disc debut.
"I just kind of fell into making music," says Gary Nichols of his impressive credentials. "Obviously, it was something I had an interest in from a very young age. But even after I was into it professionally, I thought I just wanted to be a songwriter and a session musician. I damn sure didn't know how to go about getting a recording contract." Fortunately, others did. And that's how, eventually, he made the journey from Muscle Shoals, Alabama to Music City, U.S.A.
Donald Gary Nichols II was born in the Muscle Shoals area in 1978. His father, Donald Gary I, was a construction worker who loved the classic country sounds of Conway Twitty, Vern Gosdin and, especially, George Jones. His mother was a toy-store clerk who sang gospel music. His Uncle Larry (Condrey), who lived with Gary's family for a while, was a guitar player in area country bands.
"Guitar slingers" in country music include such Hall of Fame members as Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell, as well as such current stars as Keith Urban, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley. Gary Nichols admires all of these singer/songwriter/instrumentalist "triple threats," but his musical education extends beyond country's boundaries.
As a teenage guitarist, he performed in bands that specialized in Southern rock, soul or pop top-40 hits. He also gravitated to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, as well as to such contemporary-country record makers as Alabama, Lee Roy Parnell and Ronnie Milsap. He cites all of these as influences, as well as the traditional country music of his boyhood.
"Uncle Larry would leave his guitar out and say, 'Don't touch that!'" Gary recalls, "Which made me want to touch it even more. As soon as he'd leave the room, I'd pick up that guitar. I remember performing in three talent shows between the ages of four and six. I would always sing either 'Blue Suede Shoes' [Carl Perkins], 'Swingin'' [John Anderson], 'Elvira' [The Oak Ridge Boys] or 'Holding Her and Loving You' [Earl Thomas Conley], which must have sounded strange being sung by a 5-year-old."
"Those three talent shows pretty much cemented my goal to be a musician. At the third one, I won $100 and a chance to be on the Country Boy Eddie TV show in Birmingham. I took that $100 and bought my first guitar."
His guitar teacher put the 6-year-old into the kiddie country band J.J. Smith & Company. For the next three years, he sang his same four country ditties in the group. When Gary was seven, his father began taking him into bars and asking local bands to let the boy get up and sing a couple of tunes.
"I loved music so much that I took my guitar to kindergarten and first grade with me. By this time, I was also playing and singing in church. I just kept on playing, taking my guitar to school and sitting at home watching music videos, trying to learn the guitar riff in 'Sweet Child O Mine' by Guns N' Roses."
At age 14, he joined his second country band, Young Country. As before, he was the youngest member in the group. A short stint in a group called Cross Roads brought him to Nashville to play at the Renaissance Hotel. Then there was his teenaged tenure in his uncle's Backwoods Band
His father suffered a stroke around this time. The money Gary Nichols made making music now became more important to the family than ever. By age 15, he was working 30 hours a week at a construction-equipment rental company, going to school fulltime and playing country music at every opportunity.
In 1997, Gary was introduced to Jimmy Johnson and his Muscle Shoals Sound studio, which led to him playing guitar in his first studio recording session. Through these experiences, Gary honed his craft.
Next, he joined a regional party band called Monkee and The Spank Daddies that performed everything from Marshall Tucker to Marvin Gaye to Matchbox 20. Up until this point, Gary had been mainly a sideman guitarist. This group gave him a part-time singing slot. When it broke up, Gary became the lead vocalist in the funk-rock group Gulliver.
"I was writing songs by this time," he relates, "And I was already aware that songs were recorded in Muscle Shoals. The guys at Fame Studios had heard me play with Monkee. They decided to open their doors on Tuesdays to all the local singer/songwriters, so I just kept hanging out there. Playing sessions at Fame Studios led to Gary being signed as a staff songwriter at Fame publishing.
In 2003, Gulliver played a private party in Nashville attended by record producer Scott Hendricks. Hendricks knew that he wanted to work with Gary so he took him into the recording studio late that year. "Gary is the real deal," says Hendricks. "He is one of the most talented artists I have ever worked with."
Hendricks played what they had recorded for James Stroud, Co-Chairman, Universal Music Group Nashville. He offered Gary a recording contract with Mercury Records in 2004 and became the record's co-producer. Stroud says, "Gary Nichols is the ultimate definition of Dangerous Country."
"I've always known, deep inside, that I wanted to be a musician," says Gary Nichols. "Music is what makes me feel alive. And I know in my heart that I will be making music as long as I live."