On February 28 James “Nick” Nixon passed away. He was 76.
Nick changed Nashville’s music scene forever, and touched the lives of so many in the community. One such individual is Shannon “Bayou” Williford, who has been kind enough to share the following words in celebration of his life.
When I came to Nashville – ’95 – I was looking (since I came from the Baton Rouge blues scene – Kenny Neal, Larry Garner, Henry Gray, Chris Thomas King, etc…) for the “real” blues; the blues that was the modern version of what was played when it was kicking, in the ’50s and ’60s. I figured Nashville had a large Black population, so there had to be some real blues folk here. I knew nothing of the amazing history of R&B/blues in the Music City. So I poked around and found Casey Lutton, who was playing guitar with Marion James. I went to hear her. She was most certainly the real deal! And Casey told me about everything in town. He sent me to see Marion’s “cousin,” Nick. I think they are actually cousins by marriage in some way… I went to Parks and struck up a friendship. He introduced me to his boss, Wayne Hill, the supervisor for Metro Parks Music. Wayne’s dad was the leader of the Fairfield Four, and Wayne was a jazz trumpeter of some renown. Wayne invited me to play with he and Nick, and later he invited me to join the staff. He and Nick had been there since the beginning of Parks Music in the early ’70s. Nick teaching guitar and Wayne doing medieval recorder (which he loved) and jazz. Nick started a lot of great musicians there. Ask Mike Doster, who was learning bass and playing with Nick and Wayne, when one day, when Mike was 17, BB King’s band called Wayne and Nick, looking for a bassman. They sent Mike, and he stayed for many years on that gig.
I came on teaching harmonica. Nick and I started what became our Centennial jamBand program by combining my harp students with his guitarists and doing some showcases. We had some great times working/playing together. We would play at all the parks events. Nick and I also traded lessons. I learned guitar and he learned harp. We were still embarrassed to play these things in front of each other. I’m equally as weak on guitar as Nick was on harp! From there we developed the Blues in the Schools program and presented it to the Music City Blues Society. In 2000, thanks to Dave and Melinda Kunkel, MCBS leaders, we were nominated and won the Blues Foundation’s Keep the Blues Alive Award for our Blues in the Schools. They launched us and we eventually left that organization and formed – with the great Buffy Holton leading – American Roots Music Education, and did a lot of stuff thru them. When the economy crashed in ’08, our ARME thing sagged away. During the 12 years of Blues in the Schools, Nick and I would do as many as 70 school appearances a year. We were the first (according to Ronnie Stein and Howard Gentry) musicians to play at the Metro Council meeting. We were the only music program to be invited to play every school in Nashville. It was good stuff.
I loved the way Nick was so positive with the kids. He genuinely loves people and loves children. He would constantly tell them how good they were doing. And when correcting them, he didn’t come across as anything but helping. He would tell kids that there was the way that he thought was the right way to play a chord or a lick, but he would also show other ways to get the same thing. And he was always a student of guitar, too, asking others to show him a lick or a change.
Nick was such a font of history and knowledge for me. The best thing was his humility, I think. It goes with a deep self-confidence, though. He knew who he was and who he was not. Musically, he showed me so much about groove and harmony. And again. Nick loved people. He was a giving man. In his neighborhood, he was the first guy to help folks who are down and out. He didn’t even get mad at ’em if they mess up and do him wrong. I’ve seen him be so sweet and respectful to homeless/lost soul types. It was inspiring and certainly a reflection of his spirituality.
“I think in life you need to reinvent yourself,” reflects Markey — the namesake and frontwoman of the Nashville blues act Markey Blue — via email. “I don’t believe in being stagnant,” she continues, “[I] always wanna be growing, learning, and getting better at a craft.” However broad the statement, if ever there were a person to which the term “reinvention” could be ascribed, it’s Markey. The band’s debut album, Hey Hey, started with a meeting between Markey and guitarist Ric Latina, conceptually evolving from a four-track EP to a full-length release, and in the process morphing from a more traditional blues sound into a self-described genre bending “New Indie Soul/Blues” mix. “I had to re-learn how to sing. My gut bucket belting was not gonna work for this project. And Ric, holy cow he really worked to find different sounds for this album.” Markey’s history of reinvention runs far deeper than this most recent musical shift though, as her journey as an entertainer winds back through country music, the Pacific Northwest, and periods working as both a stand-up comic and impressionist, which all kicked off at the age of 19 when she became the youngest chorus member among one of Las Vegas’ premier dance troops.