Three decades ago, the R&B singer and guitarist stepped back from the music business and ended his tenure with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel to open the Hill Top Cafe, just north of Fredericksburg, with his wife, Brenda. Over the years, he’s ventured back into action. His new album, Future Blues, features such prominent Texas musicians as Cindy Cashdollar, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and Jimmie Vaughan.
You started your first band in 1963 in Westerley, Rhode Island, as Beatlemania was revving up. Yet you were playing rhythm and blues.
There was a station out of Providence that played Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, and that’s what we grooved on.
And you gravitated toward like-minded Rhode Island musicians—[future Roomful of Blues leader] Duke Robillard and [drummer] Fran Christina.
I’d go over to Duke’s house after school and we’d be turnin’ each other on to stuff. We formed a band for a while called the Black Cat Blues Band. I went out to Ann Arbor and formed the Boogie Brothers, while Duke got a couple of horns and started Roomful of Blues.
Why Ann Arbor?
We were beating our brains out playing in dives in Providence, and there were four clubs in Ann Arbor that booked blues regularly. We backed up everybody at the Blind Pig—Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Junior Lockwood, Arthur Crudup. Ann Arbor was a happenin’ town.
Then you moved to Austin. Did you have the Asleep at the Wheel gig already set up?
Nah, I came down first around ’74. Jimmie Vaughan had heard our broadcast from the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, and he said, “Man, this club just opened. You should come down to Antone’s.” The Wheel moved to Austin from Oakland around then, and [Wheel leader] Ray Benson and I did some recording. Then I wound up back in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a long story that involves a woman. I formed a band up there called the Rhythm Rockers with Kaz Kazanoff, Sarah Brown, and a young guitarist named Ronnie Earl—I gave him his first gig. About 1978, I got a call from Ray inviting me to join the Wheel. I had a good band, but I just did not like Boston. That was my ticket down, and I jumped on it.
Then you made a big change.
My last show with the Wheel was—it was the last of a lot of things—the last night of the year and the last night of the Armadillo World Headquarters. I had met Brenda, and we decided to get married. Her grandparents lived out in the Hill Country, so we moved out there and bought this old gas station roadhouse called Hill Top. Brenda started out cooking on a little two-burner hot plate, making gumbo and chili.
That’s a drastic change for a career musician.
Part of it was temporary insanity [laughs]. We didn’t know the first three rules of the restaurant business: location, location, location. It was a huge adjustment. I had been on the road hard for fifteen years at that point, and I wanted to get away from that whole lifestyle. My old friends would come out—Johnny Shines, Pinetop Perkins, John Hammond, Bonnie Raitt. [The late guitarist] Stephen Bruton came out all the time. He was such a chowhound we named a dish after him.
You began easing back into the limelight with an album a few years later and have put out five albums since then. Do you use the restaurant to test out new material?
It’s weird playin’ there. Last week I walked in late and there were about twenty people left, and I sat down and played for the best audience you could ever hope for. Two nights later I sat down in the same chair in the same room with a houseful of people, and they couldn’t have cared less.
You’re back out on the road now.
You’ve gotta book the festival circuit a year ahead of time, and that’s what we’re workin’ on. Ray and I were talking the other day, and I said, “Boy, was I a dumbass. I just thought whenever I got ready, I’ll just go, ‘Johnny Nicholas is back!’ ” And Ray says, “Yeah, man, Mel Tillis told me, ‘It’s real easy to get out of show business. It’s real hard to get back in.’ ”