A Honky Tonk Dissident in Wales
Jeb Loy Nichols is his real name, and he’s just about the polar opposite of that other Jeb you’ve been hearing about. “I've lived my whole life having to repeat my name,” Nichols said to me in an e-mail. “Maybe Mr. Bush will raise awareness of those three letters: J E B.”
This whole article practically begged to be a Jeb vs. Jeb comparison. The singer: “I create art, music, books, in order to be poor. Sustainable poverty is the goal. For most of my adult life I've managed to create a life that is just two or three inches above destitution—which is fine with me. Poverty means I have time to write and make music and do my printmaking.”
The candidate: “I’d like to be very wealthy.” (1993)
But I would not stoop that low.
Here’s the point. Over the next two years, every time you read or hear about Jeb Bush, try to remember that your time would be much better spent discovering this tragically overlooked musical wonder.
Nichols’s obscurity is a tragedy even if it’s intentional. His only brush with fame came back in 1997 with “As the Rain,” the second song of the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting (which justifiably propelled Elliott Smith to renown). Nichols has a cool, measured, soulful croon and a knack for nearly danceable country-soul-disco grooves.
I dare you not to tap your toe to “Countrymusicdisco45.”
Nichols grew up in Missouri and Texas, so his roots are authentically country, but he speaks with an English accent. Living in London and Wales for nearly 30 years will do that to even the countriest of country boys.
For the past 15, he’s lived in Wales with his wife, the artist Loraine Morley. “I’ve never visited Facebook or any social networking site,” he told me when I first wrote him. “Never downloaded any music. “ He describes his town as a “scene of people who’ve dropped out, 70s hippies, strata of leftouts and leftovers.” This scene includes Ian Gomm, formerly of the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz, who collaborated with Nichols on a damn good album in 2010, Only Time Will Tell (Link to purchase).
Like his hero Tony Joe White (whom I’d barely heard of before speaking to Nichols), Nichols is a three-named honky tonk philosopher. White, I now know, wrote hits for Tom Jones, Elvis Presley, and Tina Turner and appeared in a rock opera version of Othello.
Nichols invokes another figure I’d never heard of, Rudy Wurlitzer, in describing White’s influence. “It’s like how Wurlitzer said that for a long time he didn’t know how to write without sounding like Beckett.” The only reason this is worth bringing up is that Wurlitzer, screenwriter of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which starred Bob Dylan), is a descendant of the jukebox company founder.
Speaking of jukeboxes, Jeb’s Jukebox is a treasury of obscure music pulled from the singer’s record collection, much of which was lost in a fire last year that also destroyed hundreds of art works.
As toe-tapping and plainspoken as his music is, it somehow comes as no surprise that Nichols is well-read, multitalented, and a gifted storyteller. He is a printmaker whose works grace not only his own album covers but also the walls of out-of-the-way art galleries (Figure, below). And a writer with one published novel and a few he’s releasing on his own, because, in his words, “Why have a dysfunctional relationship with the publishing business when I already have that with the music business?”
He writes fiction with the stereo turned off and makes prints with it turned on. He writes songs while walking. “I often walk from my house to my neighbor’s,” he says, “a little over a mile, down (and then, on return, up) a hill. The ideas come on the walk down (I then sit with my neighbor, drink tea, gossip, discuss the weather) and are refined on the walk home.”
Jeb Loy Nichols sent me the manuscript of one of his two new novels, Nothing to You, which strongly brings to mind the work of David Markson, cycling through the biographies of obscure figures in search of larger meaning.
"I once watched Jeff Keen from a distance, as you might a rabbit or a gang of youths. He recently died. People do that. When this happens the world gets less. Which isn’t always a bad thing. I often saw him at the London Film-makers Co-op, struggling with some many bulbed appliance. Showing films so quick and beautiful they stole your breath."
Keen, I now know, is another polymath with tendencies that fall somewhere between the homespun and the avant-garde, a dissident against what Nichols calls, “the dull, rather flat world that the Internet fosters—the world in which we find ourselves.”
A color-blind art lover, a tone-deaf music fan, Mark Swartz is author of the novels Instant Karma (City Lights, 2002) and H2O (Soft Skull, 2006). Mark lives in Takoma Park, MD, and helps organizations tell their stories.
Photo: William Coupon
Please support the artist by purchasing work you enjoy. For more information about the artist, please visit: http://www.jebloynichols.co.uk/