Texas Troubadour

Gary Nicholson has carved a career as one of Nashville's top songwriters, winning two Grammys and penning No. 1 hits.
Gary Nicholson
Gary Nicholson (Photo by Stacie Huckeba)

Gary Nicholson met some important people in the two years he went to North Texas.

In 1968, he met his wife, Barbara ('72), in his freshman botany class.

The guitarist and aspiring musician also met fellow music student Jim Ed Norman, who introduced him to a student named Don Henley. The three of them moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to pursue their dreams in rock music.

Henley hit it big with The Eagles. Norman eventually become a top record producer in Nashville and, in 1980, persuaded Nicholson to move there and work as a songwriter.

Nicholson's songs have been performed by Vince Gill, the Dixie Chicks, Ringo Starr, Fleetwood Mac and other top artists. He has won two Grammys in the Best Contemporary Blues category for the albums Nothing Personal in 2001 and Cost of Living in 2005 and has been inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame.

But he remains humble about his success. When did he know he made it?

"Oh, I was just trying to make it to the grocery store," he says. "I'm still trying to make it."

As a child growing up in Garland, Nicholson was awestruck by Elvis Presley and inspired to play the guitar. When he attended North Texas, he played in bands nightly, including Todd Rundgren's The Nazz, five times a week in Dallas and Fort Worth.

Originally an English major, he couldn't read music but auditioned for the Lab Band program and landed a spot in the Six O'Clock Lab Band.

"I was a blues and rock 'n' roll guy," he says.

One night in Dallas, at a Flying Burrito Brothers concert, he got a chance to talk to the lead singer, the legendary Gram Parsons, who encouraged Nicholson to pursue music in Los Angeles.

Around the same time, Nicholson met Norman, who lived in the same apartment complex as Henley. When Nicholson moved to Los Angeles in 1970, he worked together regularly with Norman and Henley. He also played the bands showcase at the Troubador. Henley played on a few demos with Nicholson's band, then formed a band that eventually became The Eagles and reached massive success on the radio.

Norman became a member of Nicholson's band, Uncle Jim's Music, after Henley formed The Eagles. But that band was more folk than rock and had less success. Nicholson moved back to Texas to be closer to family, but continued to write and make music.

He later received a boost from Norman, who had produced Jennifer Warnes and Anne Murray and went on to head Warner Brothers Music. Norman used Nicholson's song "Jukebox Argument," sung by Mickey Gilley, for the Urban Cowboy soundtrack – which became a huge hit. Then Norman persuaded Nicholson to move to Nashville to write songs full time.

And did he ever. His songs were huge hits in the 1980s and 1990s, and included Vince Gill's "One More Last Chance," Patty Loveless' "The Trouble with the Truth" and the Dixie Chicks' "More Love."

Nicholson produced two albums with Delbert McClinton that won Grammys. He's written and worked with Ringo Starr on six records. His new CD, The Great Divide, features the song "God Help America" with Ruthie Foster. He performs live regularly, both as himself and as blues artist Whitey Johnson. And his songs still play on the radio.

"It's exciting to hear your song," he says. "It still is, all the time, just to out of the blue hear the song."

Continue Reading