The blues has a history of great partnerships — an honor roll that includes Delta giants Son House and Willie Brown, Chicago kingpins Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, blues-rock innovators Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Harlem street musicians Satan and Adam, and modern punk-blues heroes the Black Keys.
Now add Nashville’s Andy T. and James “Nick” Nixon to that venerable list, because the duo’s brand new debut “Drink Drank Drunk” is an old-school barn-burner: the kind of disc that blows the dust — and the doors — off the Texas, Chicago, Louisiana, West Coast and deep soul traditions with a vital song-oriented approach rare in the blues today.
Nick wraps the red clay covered roots of his dynamic voice around 12 of the album’s 13 songs. (“Dos Danos,” featuring producer/guitarist Anson Funderburgh trading licks with Andy, is an instrumental.) He gets right to the emotional core of classics like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s heavy heartbreaker “Midnight Hour” and T-Bone Walker’s simmering slow blues “Life Is Too Short,” and romps through Andy’s original numbers including the Cajun flavored “Have You Seen My Monkey” and the guitar-hero shout-out “On My Way To Texas.”
Meanwhile, Andy’s bold, vibrant tones and equally rooted guitar style spurs, spars and supports every step of the way, serving as nothing less than the album’s supple and creative spine.
Andy and Nick’s union began on stage two years ago at the Nashville Blues Society’s regular Sunday night jam, where Andy leads the house band. Given Music City’s population of killer players, Andy was used to sharing the stage with high caliber performers. But when he heard Nick, it was love at first note.
“The first time Nick sang next to me on stage I got goose bumps,” he recalls. “Nick sings like I’d like to able to sing. He’s a really fine guitarist, too, but when Nick steps up to the microphone, the bar is seriously raised for every other musician in the room. His singing inspires me to play guitar at my best.”
As for Nick, he attests that “Andy plays great in every style of blues, so I like to just play rhythm and let him handle the hot stuff. But even when he’s playing the hot stuff, Andy knows that the blues is about soul and feeling, not about playing a lot of notes. With Andy, there’s no overplaying; he always gives me breathing room as a singer.”
Both men have decades-long resumes that account for their mature, informed style. Andy Talamantez abbreviated his given name to the stage-friendlier Andy T during his first high-profile gig, touring the world with blues legend Smokey Wilson.
Like many kids growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, the first blues Andy heard as a teenager was British blues and he fell under the spell of Eric Clapton. But he rapidly traced the music from there, assimilating elements of the vocabularies of Peter Green, Rory Gallagher, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and others until striking out on his own. He performed in various bands around Southern California until 1996, when Los Angeles-based Wilson practically plucked him off the stage for his first tour. In 1998 Andy also began playing with Guitar Shorty, a Houston native known for his blistering six-string attack and on-stage acrobatics.
During his seven years on the road with Smokey and Shorty, Andy learned how to back up a vocalist with economy and perfection as he honed his own playing style, developing a clean, mile-wide tone that cuts to the essence of every song he plays with absolute precision — an approach comparable to that of living Texas blues legends Jimmie Vaughan and Drink Drank Drunk’s producer Funderburgh. Andy recorded only one album during that time, 2003’s Ready To Roll by Smokey Wilson and the Andy T Band.
“The biggest lesson I learned from Smokey and Shorty was the importance of putting on a good show,’ Andy relates, “because they were great showmen. But I also learned more practical things, like how to run and manage a band.” He’s picked up a few more tips over the years sharing stages with Philip Walker, Charlie Musselwhite, Lonnie Brooks, King Earnest, Finis Tasby, William Clark, Roy Gaines, Rod Piazza, Kid Ramos and a host of others.
Nick’s musical education began in his native Nashville, singing in church as a boy. He began performing opera after his high school music teacher heard the rich resonant tones that seem to naturally leap from his throat.
“I had to actually learn how to sing ‘wrong’ after that, when I decided I wanted to sing rock and blues at clubs and dances,” Nick explains, chuckling.
His first working band was King James and the Sceptres, a rock ‘n’ roll outfit with Nick in the royal role. He became versed in the practicalities of the music business while playing clubs on Nashville’s famed Jefferson Street, which was Music City’s answer to Memphis’ Beale Street African-American entertainment district well into the 1970s, when disco undermined the live music market.
“There were clubs all up and down Jefferson,” Nick recounts. “Jimi Hendrix was one of the guys on the scene. You’d see him walking down the street with his guitar over his shoulder. Everybody knew Jimi and Billy Cox, who played in Band of Gypsys with Jimi later on. Johnny Jones was the hottest guitar player in town. He influenced Duane Allman and Jimi, although Larry Lee had the best stage presence. Larry and Billy both played with Jimi at Woodstock.”
After the Sceptres, Nick took the helm of NTS Limited, with Cox on bass, but his scrape with the big time came in 1974 when his group Past, Present and Future signed with Chess Records and released the single “Behind Closed Doors”/“Let’s Boogie.” The A-side written by Kenny O’Dell fared better for Charlie Rich, whose version reached the top of the country charts.
Nick formed another band, the New Imperials, and continued to tour nationally, but eventually he took a job teaching music for Nashville’s Parks and Recreation Department. He kept that position for 35 years — earning the Blues Foundation’s prestigious “Keeping the Blues Alive” award for education — while still occasionally touring the U.S. and Europe, but mostly remaining one of Nashville’s best-kept and highly revered musical secrets.
Nick, who shares a musical restlessness with Andy, also found time to make six solo albums, starting with the gospel Me, Myself and the Lord in 1998 and continuing through 2010’s muddy, Delta-influenced Heavy Load. He produced an album for gospel legends the Fairfield Four, too, and in 2011 appeared in director Mario Van Peebles’ film Redemption Road. Nick’s performance of “Rising Son Blues” is on the film’s soundtrack.
“Ever since I retired from the Parks Department in 2004, performing is all I’ve really wanted to do,” Nick says. And when he isn’t gigging, Nick can often be found at blues jams, which is how he and Andy met.
Drink Drank Drunk was originally planned as Andy’s long overdue solo debut, but the more the guitarist collaborated with Nick on stage, the more he heard Nick’s powerhouse voice in his head, singing the tunes Andy was writing and culling for the studio. Meanwhile, Andy’s friend Funderburgh — the longtime leader of renown Lone Star State band Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets — was urging him to get some tracks on tape. So Andy invited Nick on a road trip to Audio Dallas Studios in Garland, Texas.
“Anson has been one of my guitar idols since the 1980s, and all of a sudden I found myself in the studio making an album with him,” Andy recounts. “He did a great job taking turns setting me at ease and pushing me harder, as needed, and when he picked up a guitar for ‘Dos Danos, an instrumental I’d written early on for the project, it was a dream come true.” Funderburgh also plays rhythm on “I Got a Woman,” trades licks with Andy on “High Heel Sneakers” and plays fills and the final solo on “You Look So Good.”
“Of course, Nick nailed everything in two or three takes,” Andy continues. “The first song he sang was ‘Life Is Too Short,’ and by the time he was done I knew this wasn’t just my album or band anymore. Once Nick gets the kernel of what a song’s about, he’s like a force of nature — completely sure and unstoppable.
Another of Drink Drank Drunk’s crescendos is “Gonna Hit The Highway,” a face-melting Johnny “Guitar” Watson showpiece that puts Andy’s picking to the fore. He digs into the strings on his capo’d up guitar, making each note flare like a lightning strike. Andy applies the same modus operandi to his full-tilt performance on “Midnight Hour.”
“Playing heavy with a capo in standard tuning makes for a really rough approach and a tough, biting sound,” Andy says, “and the capo adds limitations, but that’s good in a way. It means every note has to count.”
There’s plenty of world-class guitar on Drink Drank Drunk, but Andy’s tour-de-force is “On My Way To Texas,” a jubilant celebration of the state’s six-string blues history. While Nick sings the praises of Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, Frankie Lee Sims, Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and others, Andy delivers a cool and cutting assimilation of their styles in his own compact, cutting and altogether compelling way.
“For me, this album is really about where Nick and me are today as artists,” says Andy. “We’ve both had a lot of experiences and influences, and drawn a bead on the music we love and how we love to perform it in a way that gets to the bottom of what the blues is all about.”