NICK 13 is a singer/songwriter whose work recalls the vintage American sounds of hillbilly, honky-tonk and classic California country music from the middle of last century. While this vanishing world echoes in his music, he puts a modern twist on it all his own.
Nick 13’s self-titled debut album for Sugar Hill Records demonstrates the sound and artistic vision that has already earned him invitations to Stagecoach, Austin City Limits and SXSW.
Nick 13 is best known around the world as the singer, songwriter, guitarist and founder of the band Tiger Army. His fans have come to expect powerful, heartfelt music that combines the strongest elements of the past with forward-thinking vision. The band is capable of multi-night stands in major cities and appeared in the New York Times, Spin and on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
A solo album of pure Americana / country where rock bombast of any kind is notably absent may seem strange from someone who has led a “psychobilly” band across four albums and several international tours during the past decade, but Nick 13 is simply retracing his own course of musical discovery.
“The first music that really, really grabbed me as a young kid was punk rock. A lot of people are puzzled where the road is from that to country music, but I started following the roots back, getting into a lot of early rockabilly and rock 'n' roll, and that lead me back to hillbilly music of the 40s and 50s” he says. “I guess that's always been a part of my nature, tracing the origins of things.”
Roots elements were present on the very first Tiger Army album, particularly in the fan favorite Western ballad “Outlaw Heart,” and on each subsequent release. Together with several crucial West Coast influences – Buck Owens, Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard and The Byrds, to name a few – the classic country sound permeates the melodies of his self-titled debut album.
“Those old records, there's such an immediacy and such passion in them. I think people have a hunger for that. If you’re at an age where you remember it, then of course you're going to yearn for music with those qualities that we all know and love,” he says. “But I find that with people who are younger, a lot of them have no idea how great the country music of the past is because they've never experienced it, especially on the West Coast.”
Finally ready to indulge his love of “hillbilly music” – a historical term he prefers because of its specificity to the country music of the 40s, 50s and 60s – Nick 13 began working on his first solo album in Los Angeles. However, he kept hitting dead ends, just like the downtrodden narrators of so many classic country songs. Rather than wallow in defeat, he decided to seek a change of scenery. So he packed it up and headed to Nashville. He entered into a month-to-month lease in a former office building above Printer's Alley, keeping his return to L.A. open-ended.
“Coming to Nashville was a real turning point for me,” he says. “When I went there, I didn't know exactly when I was coming back. I just figured, ‘I'm gonna soak up as much music history as I can, and hopefully do a little writing. If it winds up that I stay out in Nashville and make the album there, then that happens, and if it just gives me the inspiration that I need to go back to Los Angeles to do the record there, that's fine, too.’ What wound up happening was a combination of both.”
Ultimately, he enlisted kindred spirits and California natives Greg Leisz (Wilco, Lucinda Williams) and James Intveld to co-produce the project together, leaning heavily on the warmth of analog. While neither was new to producing, both are known more widely as performers, their incredible musicality and multi-instrumental skill providing the perfect framework to actualize 13's vision of a California country record for the new millennium.
Not long after tracking began in Los Angeles, a return trip to Nashville led to studio time with steel guitarist Lloyd Green, who underscored the tracks with elegant licks and fills. A Nashville legend, Green's lovely and lonesome instrument can be heard on the Byrds’ pivotal Sweethearts of the Rodeo album, as well as literally hundreds of classic country hits.
“Hanging out in Tennessee put me in touch with the music that I love so much,” he says. “It also sharpened my focus and made me realize that I have something to say as a West Coast country artist, that's the perspective I really wanted to bring. When you see the way people have hung on to the history in Nashville, it's so cool. There were a lot of great things happening on the West Coast in the 40s, 50s and 60s, but unfortunately, the masses here have lost touch with the country music heritage of California.”
Despite his intense admiration for Southern institutions like early bluegrass, the Opry and Sun Records, Nick 13 continues to draw his biggest inspiration from the Golden State. In “101,” perhaps the album's most upbeat tune, Nick recalls loading up the car, saying goodbye to his loved ones in the small Northern California town of Ukiah and heading south for a new life amid the glimmering lights of L.A.
“I think it's just the deep connection that we all have with the soil we grew up on,” he says. “There are so many amazing songs about the hills of Tennessee or the grasslands of Kentucky, but singing them just wouldn't ring true for me because California is where I was born and raised.”
Most of the album's players are either originally from the Golden State or currently live there, like Josh Grange (Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, Dixie Chicks), Mitch Marine (Dwight Yoakam), Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) or California-born Nashville resident Eddie Perez (Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks), to name but a few of the well-respected musicians who round out the album in addition to Intveld and Leisz.
Nick 13 made his on-stage solo debut with an afternoon slot at the 2010 Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Calif., directly before Ray Price and Merle Haggard.
“They couldn't have given me a better spot,” he says. “It was a lot of fun to see a positive reaction from people who had never heard the music, especially from the longtime country fans who definitely know their stuff.”
In the classic country tradition, loneliness and romantic longing weave their way through the narrative. The autobiographical lead track, “Nashville Winter,” captures the inherent isolation of leaving behind everything you know, yet ends on a sweet note as he goes home to his darling. “Carry My Body Down” and “All Alone” are more despondent, yet the subtle rhythm section – one of the album's clearest sonic ties to the past – enhances the mood without overpowering it.
“There's something hypnotic about that rhythm, especially when you combine it with a stand-up bass,” he says. “Some people have perceived the extensive use of the stand-up, live and on this record, as a rockabilly thing and it's really not. That just happens to be the instrument used on so many of the old hillbilly records that I love. Of course at one point, there were no drums and the stand-up provided all the rhythm. I like to preserve that element, I guess. It's got to have that acoustic quality to it and sound like it’s right there it's in the room with you.”
Nick 13 gets his distinctive name through a connection to his first band, Influence 13 – friends using “13” to differentiate himself from another Nick in his social circle. He insists that Tiger Army is still in the picture and he’s pleased that the group’s fans have been coming to the solo shows, just to see what it’s all about. By the end of the night, he hopes they’ll come away from the experience with a newfound appreciation of “hillbilly music.”
“I find that in the shows that I have played, there are a lot of people who love this music who had no idea that they would,” he says.“It's my hope that not only will people listen to my record, but that people will go back and check out some of these influences and inspirations. Hopefully it will open up a whole new world for them.”