Roy Nichols, one of California country music’s most innovative and influential guitar stylists, died July 3 following a heart attack at Bakersfield’s Mercy Hospital. The Arizona-born Nichols’ method of bending, striking then relaxing a string shaped his notes with idiosyncratic grace and made for unforgettable, mostly improvisational music. Nichols was setting musical trends from his start at age 16, when his work with the renowned Maddox Bros. & Rose (bassist Fred became his legal guardian) distinguished him from 99 percent of his contemporaries. His complex, fiery playing on their recordings of jazzman Bennie Moten’s “South” and the frantic instrumental “Water Baby Blues” represented a tremendous artistic leap by 1949 standards.
Booted by the Maddoxes after he stoically took the blame for Fred’s losing the night’s pay to some sticky-fingered Las Vegas hookers, Nichols was hired in 1953 by country music’s biggest star, Lefty Frizzell, a job he kept for less than two years before drifting back to the Golden State to work local San Joaquin Valley radio and TV programs. When Los Angeles–based Wynn Stewart hired him in the late 1950s, Nichols’ importance as a stylist came even more sharply into focus, and, with steel man Ralph Mooney, the three established a new standard for modern country music and laid out guidelines for what became known as “the Bakersfield Sound.” After Stewart’s bass player, Merle Haggard, embarked on a promising career, he drafted Nichols in 1966, and for the next two decades it proved to be one of the most creative musical collaborations in America. The best example is perhaps Haggard’s 1979 masterpiece “Footlights,” in which Nichols’ spare, stinging solo complements the stark, anguished lyric with an understated perfection typical of the guitarist’s approach.
Inexplicably neglected by Haggard after the singer hired guitarist Clint Strong, Nichols essentially retired in 1987, making his final Los Angeles appearance, with lifelong friend Fred Maddox, at the Palomino in 1991. Nichols’ death came as tragic relief. Largely immobilized following a 1996 stroke, the intensely shy, immensely talented Nichols was reduced to “playing guitar in my head all day,” a condition that must have been pure hell for a man who was indisputably one of the finest guitar players of his or any subsequent generation.