Interview: Jeb Loy Nichols pays homage to Woody Guthrie and his dad’s love of bluegrass

Why Wales is similar to Missouri and the joy of first hearing Tony Joe White.

It is difficult to think of an artist who is a better embodiment of Americana UK than Jeb Loy Nichols, who was born in Wyoming and lived in Missouri, Texas, and New York City before moving to the UK  in the ‘80s and subsequently Wales. He has maintained a recording career alongside that of a visual artist and recorded music that spans country soul, folk, blues, and reggae. He also curated a series of compilation albums celebrating the country soul artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which included Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts, Travis Wammack, Jim Ford, Delaney And Bonnie, Eddie Hinton, Bobbie Gentry, Larry Jon Wilson, Tony Joe White to name only some of the artists. He is a prolific recording artist who has just released ‘The United States Of The Broken Hearted’ which has followed quickly on the heels of 2021’s ‘Jeb Loy’. Jeb will be talking about his new record and what attracted him to Wales. He will also explain his love of reggae and his relationship with reggae producer Adrian Sherwood, and what it is like being covered by Horace Andy on his ‘Midnight Rocker’ album which is on a lot of Best of 2022 album lists.  He shares his insights into his heroes, particularly Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts, and considers what the term americana means to him as a musician. Finally, he announces a new record on Bandcamp, due in January, that is his take on the Tony Rice and Norman Black duet records with Welsh guitar wizard Clovis Phillips called ‘Nichols and Phillips’.

How are you and how is Wales?

Well, it is cold today but it suits me living in Wales. We moved here in 2000, I think, and it felt to me as close to coming home to Missouri as it is possible to get, it felt very familiar to me when we moved here.

I’m not really familiar with Missouri, though I know the Ozarks are in the South, is it as hilly and mountainous as Wales?

Southern Missouri is very similar to this, it has rolling hills, it is very green with lots of lakes, yeah, it is very beautiful, as is Wales.

You are a visual artist as well as a recording artist, how did you deal with the pandemic?

I have to be honest with you, I enjoyed myself, to me it felt like a COVID holiday, you know. It felt like everyone was taking a break from stuff, and there was less pressure around, less having to do this or having to do that. It seemed like a time when people just got on with whatever they had to get on with. I did some shopping for my neighbours and talked to people over the phone, so to me it didn’t seem like such a bad time. I didn’t do any gigs for two years, which was a bit of a shame, but other than that I didn’t mind it.

You have a new album ‘United States Of The Broken Hearted’ which is largely acoustic and on On U-Sound with some notable guests, what is the background to the record and how did you record it?

It is obviously produced by Adrian Sherwood, who owns and runs On U-Sound, and Adrian was the first person I met when I moved to England. I came over because I was friends with Neneh Cherry in New York, and I knew her father and her mother, and I came over to see Neneh and she was living in a squat in Battersea with Ari from The Slits and this other guy, and I got there in the morning and the first thing he said to me was “Do you drive?”, and when I said I do he said “You are coming with me then.”, haha. He had all these records to deliver and no way to deliver them, and he had borrowed this car from somebody, so he and I went out twenty minutes after meeting delivering records to Rough Trade, and all these London record stores. And we became absolutely very close friends from that moment on, and he’s been one of my best friends for thirty years.

This new record is different from ‘Long Time Traveller’ that was also on On U-Sound.

On the new record, we were talking about Gram Parsons a lot, and Gram Parsons used to have this term Cosmic American Music about the idea that the kind of music that came from America, could only have come from America, it was this music made of country, jazz, gospel, folk, all the different things. So, we wanted to make that record, and all the records I’ve grown up listening to. My mother listened to Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald at home, but my dad was a mad bluegrass fan, and that really was that. I used to go out nearly every weekend to bluegrass festivals with my dad so I grew up listening to Ralph Stanley, and Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs was a couple of years older than me with his Family Records. I loved all those bluegrass people growing up, but my dad also loved things like Woody Guthrie and the left-wing politics of that. With this record, I really said I want to make an acoustic record, but I want to make it the record that maybe Woody Guthrie would have made, or Bill Monroe would have made if they were making a record now. And that is really the kind of record we wanted to make, a very acoustic but politically engaged record.

Adrian has his history and his talents, and while I don’t know him, I would be surprised if he was a big Gram Parsons fan.

He had no idea who Gram Parsons was, just no idea, haha.

The way you have been talking Jeb, you worked with Adrian on the album, so what did he bring given he wasn’t sure where you were coming from?

The thing about Adrian is that Adrian loves music, that’s the thing. We’ve spent thirty years talking about music together, and that music may be jazz or Ethiopian music, it might be African music, or whatever, and he is always fascinated, like I am, with new music. One thing about reggae music, which is what he comes out of, is that in Jamaica country is huge. I mean Johnny Cash was a massive star, Jim Reeves was a huge star, and people like Hank Thompson and Bob Wills were big stars in Jamaica. So Adrian already knew about those songs, he just didn’t know the context of those songs, but he was familiar with those songs being country songs in Jamaica. So it wasn’t a big leap, and also, a few years ago, maybe twenty years ago, he made a record called ‘Miracle’ with Bim Sherman, and Bim Sherman was a great ‘70s Jamaican singer, the same generation as Horace Andy and Gregory Issacs, Burning Spear, and all those people, and Bim wanted to make an acoustic record and so they made this record ‘Miracle’, and it has always been one of my favourite records that Adrian ever made. So when we started my record I told Adrian I really wanted the feeling he got with ‘Miracle’, an acoustic record that still has grooves and has the influences of a modern record in it.

It certainly worked. You are a prolific songwriter, and your albums have various flavours, how did you write the songs for your latest record, and how disciplined a songwriter are you?

I do write a lot, I mean, I don’t have a job do I, haha, I’ve got to fill up my days somehow don’t I? I do a lot of walking, and I write when I walk, so I’ve always got songs, but I rarely think oh, I’ve got ten songs let’s make a record, I don’t do that really. I have a collection of songs, and I go back to songs and I re-work them. So when the Adrian record came along, we wanted to do a few covers, the Woody Guthrie one and the Sara Ogan Gunning one, so we knew I needed to come up with seven or eight songs. So I looked at the songs I had, and there were some that just seemed to fit together, and I played them to Adrian, and he was like, yes no, yes no, and he told me which ones he liked, and we went from there.

You’ve explained what drew you to Woody Guthrie on this album, but what drew you to the other two covers?

Once again, I think there was the spectre of my father around this record a lot, like growing up and listening to music with him. The three covers were all favourite songs of his, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’, he loved that song, ‘Satisfied Mind’, which has been recorded by lots of different people in different ways was a big favourite of his, and I remember him playing the Sarah Ogan Gunning song, ‘I Hate The Capitalist System’, and I remember thinking at the time, what is this about, I don’t understand it what is she on about, what is capitalism. My dad was a teacher, and he would explain things as they went along. I think those three songs just summed up me and my dad, but also they are songs that I thought were relevant today.

You make it sound very simple. You released ‘Jeb Loy’ last year on a German label, what was behind that record?

There are two things. I really love collaborating with people, so if somebody comes to me and says we would love to make a record, we would like to make this kind of record, so the record ‘Jeb Loy’ was actually Finnish, the guys who came to me, and they are on a label called Timmion and I love the records they make with other people, I’ve loved them for years and years. So, when they came to me I was excited, and I was like, what sort of record do you want to make, and they said all the things I what to hear like Tony Joe White, Larry Jon Wilson, Dan Penn. You think alright then, let’s do it, haha. So that was a fun record to make, but it was a very specific type of record, you know. Then with Adrian, he wanted to make a different kind of record, and it is funny, just this morning I was talking to Benedic Lamdin who is a jazz record producer who I’ve worked with in the past on a couple of things, and I was talking to him about how much I love Charlie Rich, saying I just love everything about Charlie Rich. I particularly love that little period in the early ‘70s called countrypolitan records, and I was saying nobody talks about countrypolitan music anymore, that sense of uptown, everyone loves the rootsy honky tonk stuff, which I do,  but I also really love that uptown, slightly jazz, soulful country.

Billy Sherrill.

Exactly, and Benedic who is a jazz blueser from London didn’t know anything about this at all, and we finished our conversation, and then after about twenty minutes he called me up to say “Jeb, we’ve got to make a countrypolitan record”. He said he had spent the last half an hour Googling all these artists, so let’s do something around that.

You recorded ‘Only Time Will Tell’ with Ian Gomm, are you still in contact with him?

I spoke to him yesterday, and Ian only lives about eight miles away from me, and he is a dear friend and I love him. When I first moved to New York when I was seventeen I worked in a big record store in mid-town  Manhattan, and my job in 1979 was to paint banners of all the new releases because they didn’t have a way of doing it digitally, and the very first job I had was painting the banner for the new Ian Gomm record and I didn’t know who Ian Gomm was, I didn’t know anything about him. Somebody told me he had been in Brinsley Schwarz and I’d vaguely heard of Brinsley Schwarz. I love those Brinsley Schwarz records, and I love Nick Lowe, and then I got to know Ian Gomm’s music and I liked it. When we moved here twenty years ago a friend of mine just casually said there is this weird musician who lives up the road from me, and that is a sentence I’ve heard a lot and it strikes fear into any artist, oh God don’t make me meet another weird musician, I don’t have time, haha. Then they said it was Ian Gomm and I was really fascinated. I’m really good friends with Ian now, and we get together to talk about all the musicians we love, like Bobby Womack.

How much did you enjoy working on those ‘Country Got Soul’ compilations?

Oh, that was a dream come true. That is the music since I was twelve or thirteen years old that I just felt was mine. Living in a small town in Missouri, the radio is really all you get and nothing else, and you would hear a song like ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ and you would think what is that, is that a black guy, is it a white guy, is he old, is he a blues guy, and I didn’t know anything about him and for years I didn’t know anything about him, and there was no way to buy records in that little town. So, all that sort of stuff was always a great land of mystery to me, and getting into the music industry I met a few people and eventually became very friendly with Tony Joe White, and particularly Donnie Fritts and then Dan Penn and people. At that time it just seemed like a little pocket of the most amazing, talented, interesting, and goodhearted people that had more or less been neglected and passed over. I think it is a little bit better now, and they do get their dues now, it was just something I enjoyed doing and wanted to do very much.

At the same time you made some contemporary recordings with Dan Penn, I believe. Dan Penn is a great songwriter with an amazing voice, but he never seemed to really push himself as a solo artist. Do you have a take on that?

Yeah, I don’t know. Dan is a funny guy and he isn’t the easiest person to understand and be with, you know, people like Donnie Fritts are just good-time guys, Donnie was just one of the warmest sweethearts of a guy who ever lived, but Dan is a very prickly guy. I think Dan has always had a bigger ambition for himself than maybe the other ones did, Dan saw himself as a great singer and a great songwriter, and he saw himself up there with the heavy hitters, while a lot of the southern soul guys just thought this is what we do, but Dan always thought of himself as a bit more. So I think on the one hand you can say Dan never pushed himself, but he always had a very high opinion of himself, which is nice. That is a good thing, but I don’t think he bowed and scrapped to the people he should have bowed and scrapped too, and so he got marginalised a bit. And then there is that southern arrogance of well if you don’t want me, I don’t want you, and then that is the end of it, really, you know. Dan was incredibly generous to us, and to me.

He released a new record last year.

Yeah.

You are also a visual artist, how is that side of your career going?

I’ve got an exhibition up at the moment, and I’ve been doing a lot of printmaking, and I was doing that before I ever sang a song or played guitar. I went to art school as a million other artists did, and I think I went to art school to really meet other musicians because that seemed like a really good place to be. So I went to art school, and when I came to the UK I had exhibitions of my artwork and things, and that was always the route I was going down, and then I took this sort of side street into music that then became the main street. I’m still very active and doing a lot of art all the time.

I was speaking to Darden Smith a few months ago, and have you ever been tempted to start a project that fuses your art and music?

I’ve often thought about it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it would work because in my life, and in my mind, they have been so separate. You have a certain story you want to tell and it works as a particular song, and then you have another story you want to tell and you try that and it doesn’t work and then you go oh, that is because it is a painting. Those things have been very separate, and I don’t know how to do it. So, if anyone has an idea come to me, but I can’t figure out how to join them together by myself. I do combine them with videos, I’ve done some videos for myself, but other than that I can’t work it out.

What is your approach to touring these days?

Just before COVID, and then when we could during COVID, and then this year I’ve been going out with a guy called Clovis Phillips who is from mid-Wales and is an amazing guitar player and an amazing bass player, and he’s played on a couple of my records before as well, and he’s got a studio here and we’ve been working together. So it seemed like a good idea to go out on the road together and we’ve recently toured Europe, and we’ve just released on Bandcamp a live recording of that tour. It is just the two of us with two acoustic guitars, but I think it is a good way for me to be able to tour because you can bring all the different types of records I do and all the songs back to those two guitars and they still make sense. And then Clovis Phillips and I have a record coming out in January that is just the two of us, and that will come out through Bandcamp as well.

Prolific as I mentioned earlier.  What did you think of getting a couple of songs on Horace Andy’s ‘Midnight Rocker’?

There are three on there, and I’m as proud as proud can be, you know. I know Horace from years ago, and I did a tour with him in the UK where I opened for him and did my acoustic thing, and he did kind of an acoustic set. So I kind of vaguely knew Horace, but when Adrian Sherwood was making that record he called me and said “Hey, we need some more songs, have you got anything we can pitch to Horace?”. I said I will send you three, and you can use one of those, and then about two months later I call Adrian to see what had happened to those songs, and he told me they had done all three of them on the record and that they were all great. I was really, really, pleased and they sound amazing. Horace just sounds incredible.

A lot of people have taken notice of that album this year.

Yeah, he is such a great singer.

What do you think of the recent midterm elections back home, and what is your relationship with the US at the moment?

I think the whole of Western politics has gotten us into a terrible situation, and I’m not one of these people who just call out America that is the only place in the world that has gone down a very strange and slightly dark route, I think there are a lot of places that are not showing the world their best side. My sister lives in Missouri, and I speak to her every week, and we talk a lot about the situation there and it is very bad, in my view it is very bad. My sister was a librarian in a small town for thirty years, and she had to quit because she just found it too stressful to deal with the kind of things Trump unleashed. People would come into the library and you couldn’t put up a poster for Black History Month, or you couldn’t put up a poster about anything Gay, and all this stuff. So it became a very toxic atmosphere for her and she had to quit. It is very difficult, it is the most polarised that America has ever been, and I also dislike the notion that everything was rosy until old Donald Trump came along, everything wasn’t rosy. America has always been polarised, westerners came over and just committed genocide on the people and animals that lived there. From there very shortly after they got into the slavery trade, and then they had a massive civil war, so it has never been the paradise that people like to think it has been. It certainly wasn’t when I grew up there, it was a wonderful place on many levels, but it was also a very difficult place. It continues to be a difficult place, but I think people like Trump just ramp up these things, and then they don’t get talked about they get yelled about, and that is a big problem.

You mentioned Neneh Cherry earlier on, did you ever meet her dad, Don?

I knew Don and her mother Moki who is an artist very well. Her mother Moki was a big influence for me in my art, but Don was a big influence, not so much as a musician, but as a person the way he was, and I loved Don. And I loved Don’s music, I’m a huge fan of Ornette Coleman and that whole tradition that Don is part of, and Charlie Haden the bass player who was also from Missouri as well, so we used to talk about Missouri which was nice.  That was a very important time for me when I lived in New York, for those years. There was Neneh on the one hand, and she was friendly with The Slits and that post-punk thing, and then there was Don and Moki and a lot of that group that were involved in something very different, but an amazing time, yeah.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m excited about Trey Hensley’s new record, he has a new record coming out in February, he is a bluegrass singer in America and he is the real deal and his record is coming out on Compass Records. Sadly I listen to a lot of old records, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad or whatever, and I guess because we finished this record I was listening to a lot of ‘70s reggae, so I was listening to a lot of Culture, and Joseph Hill is one of the greatest underrated singers of all time, Joe Higgs as well, a great singer. And then just generally I’ve been listening to Tony Rice, just constantly, because he is someone else who would make a jazz record, and then he would make a singer-songwriter record, and then he would make a bluegrass record, and then the duet records with Norman Blake. And I think Tony Rice did all that so effortlessly. When I made this new record with Clovis Phillips called ‘Nichols and Phillips’ it is really based around those Rice and Blake records that Tony Rice made with Norman Blake. So, Tony Rice is a big one.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I’m always intrigued when someone says they like americana music because I’ve never really grasped what americana is. It fascinates me because a few records ago we made ‘June Is Short July Is Long’ and I think in my mind I thought I was making an americana record, but it didn’t turn out to be really an americana record, but then the new record I’ve made with Adrian, ‘United States Of The Broken Hearted’ people think is a very americana kind of record, and it absolutely was not our intention to do that at all. I’m kind of fascinated with this catchall phrase of americana, and for someone who hasn’t lived in America for forty years, I’m still hugely influenced by that music, that is who I am, so it is an interesting concept.

It is about marketing, radio play, and streaming, though it is also about good songs.

It is to an extent, but Ian Gomm and Brinsley Schwarz were making americana music, even though they had never been there, they were making country song-type music, and they were singing with American accents which was kind of strange, but that is the kind of music they made. Nick Lowe has made a whole career out of it, but it has taken me a long time to be easy with that phrase, and for a long time it was anathema to me. I was like I’m interested in reggae and soul music, hip hop, and all that stuff, I’m not interested in americana, but americana is those things as well.

You mentioned your dad’s influence on you with bluegrass.

Yeah, but my mom’s influence with Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, Dave Brubeck, and that kind of jazz world is as much an influence on me as anything else. And that music often gets left out of the americana conversation, and yet it is an intensely American music.

You had Bob Wills who mixed jazz and country.

Exactly. And you have these things that people don’t talk about again like the great Hank Thompson, one of my favourite country singers of all time, he made a record called ‘Hank Thompson Sings Nat King Cole’ and he made that in the late ‘60s, you know before Merle Haggard made his Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers records. So there has always been that crossover between those people.

That is why we like this music.

Exactly, haha.

Jeb Loy Nichols’ ‘United States Of The Broken Hearted’ is out now on On-U Sound.


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About Martin Johnson 274 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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