Two years ago, rock ’n’ roll broke Jon Nicholson’s heart—again. Only this time, it turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to him.
At the time, Nicholson led a promising rock band named Stroller who’d been doing increasingly well on the Nashville club scene and beyond. The first chink came when the group’s original drummer, Keith Brogdon, left to accept another offer.
The band forged on, with Nicholson supported by guitarist Adam Shoenfeld and bassist Dean Tomasek, both well-regarded local musicians with national touring experience. They hired another drummer, rehearsed intensely, yet just as they began building momentum again, the bottom fell out. The group’s new drummer stole nearly all of their equipment and some of their personal items. The guy hocked it all and left town.
“We hit the local pawn shops and hunted down some of our stuff,” Nicholson says. “I found the Premier drum set that my brother had been given when he was 8 years old, shit like that. But it was a hard blow, man. It pretty much killed the band.”
Before going their separate ways, Nicholson and Tomasek wrote two songs together: “Stereo,” a melodic pop-rocker in which a guy compares the theft of his CD player and speakers to losing his lifeline to the world, and “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Breaking My Heart,” a blast of guitar swagger.
“Rock ’n’ roll does break my heart, every single day, but I love it,” Nicholson says. “Dean had come up with the idea. It’s about the experiences of being in a band that we’ve all faced. Just when things are going great, somebody quits or runs off, or something about it breaks down. It happens over and over and over again to all of us. Yet we still love the music. We can’t help it.”
Success proved the best revenge. Nicholson became one of four co-founders, or “godfathers,” of MuzikMafia, the tightly knit aggregation of outlaw types who represent one of the most galvanizing developments on the Nashville music scene in years, yielding huge hits from Gretchen Wilson and the duo Big & Rich. Thanks to his MuzikMafia connection, and the two songs that he wrote after Stroller disbanded, Nicholson secured his own record deal with the rock division of Warner Bros. “Stereo” became the first single off his album, A Lil Sump’m Sump’m, which came out this week. The second single likely will be “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Breaking My Heart.”
“Funny how things work out, huh,” says Nicholson, who doesn’t sound like anyone else who’s emerged from the Nashville rock scene of late. “Rock ’n’ Roll Is Breaking My Heart” is the exception on his solo debut, a guitar-driven modern-rock number that might sequence nicely between records by Franz Ferdinand and The Killers.
But the bulk of A Lil Sump’m Sump’m employs a stripped-down style built around the fuzzy, funky sound of vintage keyboards. Nicholson’s album is steeped enough in soul music to gain comparisons to mainstream groups like Maroon 5 or Counting Crows. Yet by utilizing the warm analog tones of Fender Rhodeses, Wurlitzers, Hammonds and harmoniums, it also recalls soul-inflected ’70s rock artists like Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie, if not aspects of Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers.
Nicholson’s record is also a departure from previous MuzikMafia albums. Whereas Mafia members like Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and Cowboy Troy upturned country music in the last year, boosting sales while defying musical and cultural stereotypes, Nicholson embraces a distinctly rock and soul aesthetic.
His ethic, though, is utterly of a piece with the twangier likes of Wilson and Big & Rich, since MuzikMafia isn’t about one musical genre. In its broadest terms, it’s about tilting the decision-making power in the music industry back toward the artists. The Mafia includes acts who could be defined as rock and rap, gospel and R&B, bluegrass and electronic, and that sweeping aesthetic represents a musical and cultural broadmindedness rarely, if ever, seen in a company town like Nashville.
MuzikMafia arose entirely from the city’s local music scene, which has seen its share of success stories of late, but none as singular as this one: a tale of four beat-down musicians who, feeling burnt by the industry, stubbornly forged a grassroots path to mainstream success. Were it not for this meeting of minds and the meteoric rise of Mafia principals Wilson and Big & Rich, Nicholson likely wouldn’t have a deal with a major label.
Nicholson’s music will be promoted as a rock record by the Los Angeles division of Warner Bros. But listen to the album, and it’s evident that he’s not making it easy on marketing execs who prefer acts who are easy to categorize. A Lil Sump’m Sump’m shifts effortlessly from modern rock to laid-back soul to melodic pop to singer-songwriter fare, mixing and matching influences without regard to what box they fit in.
A couple of ballads feature Nicholson and a keyboard, but they’re not the sensitive meanderings more familiar to modern-day pianists. Songs like “Take Me Back” or “Hero” have more in common with Ray Charles and Norah Jones than with anything by Billy Joel or Jamie Cullum.
Most of the other songs feature Nicholson’s Nashville quartet, which includes Max Abrams on saxophone, Jerry Navarro on bass and Elijah D.D. Holt on drums backing Nicholson’s keyboards. Producer Angelo (he just goes by his first name), who also helped local rockers Kings of Leon gain national attention, joins Nicholson on guitar when the instrument does appear.
“In a lot of cases, we use the saxophone where the guitar would usually go,” Nicholson explains. “The Stratocaster originally was made to mimic the sound of the saxophone. The sax used to be one of the biggest parts of rock ’n’ roll, but nobody’s using it anymore. We figured, ‘Why not bring it back?’ ”
The song on Nicholson’s album likely to get the most attention is “Grandma,” a swaying back-porch number played primarily on acoustic guitar and Dobro. A genial fantasy about getting high with an elderly loved one, “Grandma” portrays a 92-year-old woman surprising her grandson with the revelation, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here, old as I am, and never been stoned / I’ve waited too long, so bring it on / Grandma’s going to fly.” A bootleg tape of the song has been circulating for months on the jam-band underground.
Nicholson wrote the song one afternoon sitting with his acoustic on top of the Love Circle hill off of West End Avenue. “I didn’t have any idea what I was writing about until three lines into the song, and I realized, ‘Holy shit, I’m writing a song about smoking herb with my grandma,’ ” he laughs. “I didn’t plan it. It just kind of went there.”
The song always gets a reaction. Most of it is overwhelmingly positive, except close to home. “My mom detests that song,” Nicholson says. “I get all kinds of grief from her on it. She begged me every day not to put it on the record. She says I’m disgracing my grandparents, who aren’t with us anymore. But I think I wrote it as wishful thinking about my mom. I’d love for her to chill out with me sometime and maybe smoke a joint. It’s a little dream I have.”
But Nicholson was determined not to let outside forces, not even his mother, impose themselves on his album. A native of Madison, Wis., he moved to Nashville at age 19 in 1994, full of attitude and ambition. “I thought I’d come down here and hang out with Willie [Nelson] and be an overnight sensation,” he says with a wry smile.
Alas, as with nearly everyone who has the same idea, that didn’t happen. But in truth, Nicholson got noticed much faster than most. Within a year, he had signed a recording contract with Curb Records. That’s when his real education began. “I found out the hard way that there’s this underlying community of bloodsuckers who are waiting on people to show up here who don’t know what they’re doing, and they feed off of them,” he says.
Nicholson went to work with a label-approved producer who convinced him to try songs and sounds he wasn’t comfortable with, all along telling him that this was how everyone else who makes it does it.
“I wasn’t digging it at all, but I didn’t know what to do,” says Nicholson, who’s not bitter about the experience, just thankful he got out before it was too late. “I was scared at first to give up the opportunity. But we’d recorded some songs and were about to cut the first video, and I hated it. So I pulled out of everything.”
The Curb contract would have tied up Nicholson’s management, publishing and recording all in one excessively long-term package. “The deal was kind of screwy,” he says. “I came to find out Curb does those kinds of deals all the time. They’re creative in interesting ways that benefit everyone but the artist.
“So I got lucky,” he goes on. “Things hadn’t been completely firmed up yet, so I was able to throw the whole deal out the window. I’ve met a lot of people who weren’t so fortunate.”
About the same time, Nicholson also met another up-and-comer, publishing executive Cory Gierman, who gave him a contract with a major publishing company on Music Row. Nicholson hooked up with others in the Nashville rock scene, including Kenny Alphin, who at the time led the band Big Kenny. Nicholson and Alphin became roommates.
By 2002, when Stroller went bust, all three of the friends—Gierman, Alphin and Nicholson—felt they’d bottomed out. Gierman had lost his position in publishing. Big Kenny had put out one album, Live a Little, on Hollywood Records, but had been dropped by the company just as the record came out; afterward, Alphin had trouble stirring up label interest in his new band, Luvjoi. The three began hanging out and playing music in the living room shared by Nicholson and Alphin.
Another of Big Kenny’s writing partners who’d fallen on tough times, John Rich, also started stopping by regularly. Rich had been fired by the country-pop band Lonestar two years earlier, right before the group enjoyed multiplatinum success with the award-winning love song, “Amazed.” He signed a solo deal with RCA, but the label dropped him in 2000, just before the release of his debut album, I Pray for You.
“We were as down as we could get, as far as our careers,” Rich says. “I mean, RCA Records let me know they were dropping me by sending a fax to my manager. They didn’t even bother to call or to tell us in person. It doesn’t get much more degrading than that. Kenny and I both had two strikes against us, and nobody was returning our calls.”
The friends would like to say they planned what came next. Instead, it’s one of those stories that prove the record industry doesn’t always work the way it’s laid out by those who lecture or write books on the topic.
“What happened was we decided to ignore the music industry and have some fun, because nothing was happening for us anyway,” Rich says. “Maybe it proves that the best way to succeed is to do what you love and forget everything else everyone tells you.”
As the four friends gathered each night, others began to drop by to sit in. Soon, they hit upon an idea: why not move out of the living room, find a club where they could keep the informal atmosphere of friends making music and put on a free show every week?
“We’d all been beaten up by the record business,” Gierman says. “We’d lost our record deals or our jobs, and nothing was working out. But we weren’t going to sit around complaining. We wanted to make something happen, only the normal Nashville way wasn’t working out for us. It had to be something different.”
The only club willing to gamble on the idea was the tiny Pub of Love, the now closed drinking hole a block north of Broadway on 12th Avenue. The club had a small, bare-walled performance space on the second floor. On Oct. 23, 2002, Alphin, Rich, Nicholson and Gierman dragged in couches, lamps, end tables and rugs, turning the blank room into a friendly gathering space. They christened their shows “MuzikMafia nights.”
The term originated because the four friends—who now call themselves the MuzikMafia godfathers—wanted a catchphrase that emphasized music over business. “We sat around and said, ‘What Nashville needs is a mafia, because this town won’t pay attention to anyone on their own,’ ” Gierman says. “We decided to form our own mafia. I’ll support you, you support me, and we’ll all support each other.”
Admittedly, few people shared their enthusiasm at first. The Pub of Love offered the MuzikMafia a Tuesday slot, one of the slowest nights of the week. The shows started at 10 p.m., a late hour for a weeknight in a bedroom, family-oriented community where many people in the music industry are already at home for the night. That left the city’s nocturnal set—mostly out-of-work musicians, struggling songwriters and performers, college students and restaurant workers—as a prospective audience.
Still, word spread quickly among local music fans. Within weeks, MuzikMafia was a surprise success, with the Pub of Love flooded beyond capacity each week. Gretchen Wilson, who was working as a waitress and bartender at Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley, began performing regularly at the invitation of Rich, who’d heard her sing during a break between bands at Bourbon Street. Cowboy Troy, a black cowboy rapper who had met Rich during a Lonestar show in Dallas, periodically drove up from Texas to perform.
Before long, regular participants included jugglers, flamethrowers, a woman who made abstract paintings live to the music, and a dancing dwarf nicknamed Two Foot Fred from Indiana. It seemed as if every misfit and outcast in town suddenly felt as if they had a home within the anything-goes shows.
Increasingly, MuzikMafia nights moved to bigger clubs—always on Tuesday nights, always free and always overcrowding whatever venue they called home. Detroit rocker Kid Rock, a frequent Nashville visitor, showed up one night to play, then returned off and on to sit in; country star Martina McBride and members of the rock band Saliva got up onstage as well.
Eventually, the daughter of Warner Bros. Nashville executive Paul Worley told her father he should check out Big Kenny and John Rich, who often performed together at the MuzikMafia shows. They hadn’t yet considered themselves a duo; both still wanted to pursue solo careers.
Worley, who has produced hit albums by the Dixie Chicks and McBride, invited the two to come to his office to perform some of the songs they’d co-written. Alphin and Rich thought they were pitching tunes for other artists to record, but at the end of an informal session, Worley asked the two if they wanted a record deal as a duo.
About the same time, Wilson got a deal with the demos that she made with the help of Rich, Alphin and Nicholson. Suddenly, the MuzikMafia became the hottest grassroots farm club in Nashville.
“From the start, we knew we were going to be too radical to be ignored,” smiles Alphin. “We had hoped people would love what we do as much as we do, but we also realized we could be run out of town for trying something new.”
Wilson and Big & Rich went on to become multiplatinum artists with their first albums, shaking up Music Row and country music in the process. Warner Bros. gave Gierman his own MuzikMafia-affiliated record label, Raybaw Records (an acronym for “red and yellow, black and white”).
Nicholson is the last of the Mafia godfathers to get his shot, and he credits his affiliation with the artist cooperative for the opportunity.
“I would’ve never been given the creative freedom I have if it wasn’t for what the MuzikMafia has accomplished,” he says. “I went in as a new artist, but the label completely left me alone to do what I wanted. I had no creative input from anyone whatsoever other than the musicians on the record.”
Nicholson recorded the album at The Lair, a remote studio built into a huge mountain cabin in the Catskill Mountains near Woodstock, N.Y. Norah Jones recorded her debut there, and the Dave Matthews Band, David Bowie and Tim McGraw also prefer working there. Nicholson was given a budget to lease the place for 40 days. He brought in Angelo to produce the record with him, and the only other musicians to take part in the sessions were Nicholson’s three band members.
“It was like band camp,” he says. “The studio is one of the most incredible places you can imagine. It’s all wood and solid glass, with these great views overlooking the Catskills. It was stunning.”
Nicholson hauled all his vintage gear up there, then found a room packed with other versions of his dream instruments. “They had about 50 more keyboards up there, in this room with 40-foot-high ceilings,” he says. “It was like a cathedral; it was my idea of heaven.”
Leading up to the album’s release, Nicholson and his band have been working the road. They’ve opened short tours for Kid Rock, Jonny Lang and Karl Denson & His Tiny Universe. They just finished a video for “Stereo,” and they played a record-release party at Mercy Lounge Sept. 27, the day that A Lil Sump’m Sump’m came out.
“Ever since I came to Nashville, I was kind of the odd man out, because I’ve always been the non-country guy,” Nicholson says. “It can be a difficult battle. There’s been a lot of us trying to do rock out of here, but lately it seems like we’re starting to break through. You have the Kings of Leon doing their thing, and Mindy [Smith] is doing well.
“But I think this is a great town to be coming from. Everything’s come together so well in the last couple of years that it just feels right. It feels like the right time to be doing what I’m doing, and to be doing it out of Nashville.”