At first glance one might be a bit perplexed by the combination of these two releases within one review. One is the newest release from songwriter Gary Nicholson, while the second, is a collection of songs deeply rooted in the blues from Whitey Johnson. Here’s a secret, the albums are by the same person. Whitey Johnson is simply the alter-ego of Gary Nicholson an acclaimed songwriter known for his songs performed over the years by a multitude of well known artists. Buddy Guy, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt and many more. There are also co-writing credits with an equally impressive list of songwriters to go along with it. Nicholson’s songs get around. With that said, lets take a look at Nicholson’s Great Divide first.
Opening with “God Help America”, one immediately recognizes the familiar strains of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America”. Nicholson augments the lyrics and message of the original with the soulful accompaniment of Ruthie Foster on co-vocal. A cursory glance through song titles of the remaining ten tracks provides the insight that the album is geared towards social causes and a statement towards our country’s current political climate. “Soft Spot” is a plucky, rolling song celebrating the simpler times when people helped one another. Here Nicholson is offering a striking contrast to your typical folk album or release focusing on making a bitter political statement at all cost. Rather than choosing a side, his focus seems to center on more root issues and human nature. “Trickle Down” is up next, with its fun bluesy approach and it’s quickly followed by the traditional folksy feel of “Immigrant Nation.” Interestingly, that refreshing contrast found in “Soft Spot” seems to be tossed aside here in favor of the more biting approach, which seemed somewhat out of sort with the rest of the album. Thankfully, the former approach rears its head again with “We Are One,” “Nineteen,” and “Troubles,” and it’s here that I found Nicholson to be at his best. “Blues In Black & White” is a heartfelt recount of racism experienced and witnessed by early traveling musicians. “Choose Love” is perhaps the most important message of the album, and perfectly placed as the reflective closer. Musically, Great Divide is a stellar presentation, with guest appearances peppered throughout by The McCrary Sisters, John Cowan, Shawn Camp, Colin Linden and more.
“Obscure” bluesman Whitey Johnson provides us with More Days Like This, which in and of itself seems to contrast the more serious subject matter contained in Nicholson’s “The Great Divide”. Here, Johnson’s focus centers more on personal happiness, life, love and romance; always suitable subjects for a bluesman regardless of his or her “obscurity.” It’s a fun, funky and soulful collection of songs co-written with others over the years. It’s always an insightful excursion with co-written songs to hear the respective songwriters’ interpretations. The often subtle and sometimes glaring differences are whats a real treat here. Highlights for me were many. I really enjoyed the album as a whole, but I did have a couple of particular highlights that stood out. “Starting a Rumor” would be a perfect choice for Bonnie Raitt. “The Blues Is Alive and Well” shines with its horns and B3 organ wailing about, while “Upside Of Lonely’s” harmonica and guitar swagger celebrates new found bachelorhood with gritty piano and a touch of humor. Joining Johnson here on “More Days Like This” we find the McCrary Sisters and Colin Linden making returns as well as stunning performances by Delbert McClinton, Dana Robinson, Kevin McKendree and many more.
While The Great Divide carries with it a weight of seriousness, More Days Like This does its best to lift the listener up and put their troubles behind them. Nicholson/Johnson has managed to release a pair of albums here that complement one another, while also managing to counter each other just as effectively. However you prefer your music to resonate with you, this songwriter has got you covered. Perhaps that’s the biggest benefit of how these respective albums have been released, and serve as a reminder to take things seriously, but don’t forget to live and have a good time. https://www.garynicholson.com/about Listen to premieres from both albums, here: Double Song Premiere: From Whitey Johnson/Gary Nicholson’s Pair of Releases