Gary Nicholson is a songwriter’s songwriter.
He never made it big performing. Instead, he forged a five-decade career writing for country, blues and rock artists. Nicholson's songs have been recorded by artists as varied as B.B. King, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac and Vince Gill.
“I’m still at it," Nicholson said. "I’m just as enthusiastic to be writing songs as I have ever been."
The native Texan has made Nashville, Tennessee, his home since the 1980s. His bluesy, rock-tinged work was a mainstay on country radio through the ’80s and 1990s.
One of his biggest hits, “One More Last Chance,” recorded by Vince Gill, is a blues-country barnburner. Lately, though, his music has not found a place on popular country radio. That format has changed dramatically, Nicholson said.
“I don’t think I’m very good at writing the type of music that is featured on mainstream top 40 country music radio right now,” he said. “I rarely hear something I aspire to emulate in that format. I’m not saying I’m such an ‘artiste’ that I wouldn’t attempt it. I want to have a hit just like anyone else.”
He talked to The Advocate about what it’s like to be a songwriter today.
You put in years of performing as a musician before becoming a songwriter. Is that what it takes?
As far as if you have to pay dues as a musician, I had to do that. I didn’t have any other skill set except as a guitar player. That was a way I could make a living.
I don’t think you have to be an accomplished musician to write a song. But I do recommend learning as many songs as you can in the style that you want to write in so that you have that stuff carved into your brain and it becomes a part of you.
I have told people to learn 20 songs you wish you had written. By the time you have learned those songs, you are ready to write one. It keeps the bar high.
How has the songwriting scene changed in the past few years?
I can’t really name anyone from my generation or my time in Nashville that is having hits in “bro country” radio.
There are still some really great country artists. Willie Nelson is still making records, but they aren’t going to be heard on mainstream country radio. Chris Stapleton has knocked down some doors recently.
It’s been a while since I have had a hit on mainstream country radio, but I’m having more songs recorded now than I ever had in my whole career.
Do you talk about this when you talk with new songwriters?
You can paint the picture where it is so bleak and the chances of you getting on the radio are low. The money to be earned from streaming ... it is an unsustainable prospect.
I try to be encouraging on the artistic side. Make your music. Make your art. Do what you want to do. Let the music, art and love of it be the focus.
If you want to chase the market, it’s there to be chased, but I don’t think that’s the way to go about having a career. Working on a trash route, pumping gas you would probably make more money.
THIRD STREET SONGWRITERS FESTIVAL SHOWCASE
Featuring Gary Nicholson, Clint Daniels, Greg Barnhill and CJ Solar
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge