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Singer has country in his soul

Jon Nicholson
Jon Nicholson
Warner Bros. Nashville

Even if Jon Nicholson is an anonymous singer to most music fans, his circle of friends and musical connections includes no shortage of notables.

He is a founding member of the MuzikMafia, a Nashville-based collective of musicians that has helped launch the careers of country band Big N' Rich — Big Kenny, Nicholson's former roommate, and John Rich were also founding members — and "Red Neck Woman" Gretchen Wilson, who tended bar at the club where MuzikMafia first gathered. He has jammed with Warren Haynes (of Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule), Karl Denson, Robert Randolph, Kid Rock and George Clinton, just to name a few.

Plus, there was the day he spent with the (now gray-headed) stranger, Willie Nelson, talking farming and sampling a special Valentine's Day herb, which he ranks "in my top five life experiences." Considering that Nelson is one of his oft-referenced influences, that is not a surprise.

Now, he is hitting the road for a string of solo acoustic dates as the opener for blues singer Jonny Lang. The tour will stop in Salt Lake Sept. 7 for the final show of the Red Butte Garden concert series.

What is a surprise, when scanning the names of his friends and his influences (Kris Kristofferson is another), and considering his Nashville home, is that Nicholson sounds almost nothing like them. The music on his debut album, "A Lil' Sump'm Sump'm," sounds more like classic 1970s soul, with a dash of rock 'n' roll and funk that relies heavily on keyboards.

"My friends all play country music in some fashion, so I have always been the outcast," he said in a phone interview. But the fact that he leaned toward soul never bothered his friends, especially members of MuzikMafia, "because it was always about the music, about the songs . . . it was music without prejudice."

On the new album, which is his first as a solo artist and comes out Sept. 27, the focus was writing songs "that reflected real life, the kinds of things people experience every day." That is apparent on the funky, angry letter to a thieving roommate, "Stereo," the soulful "Just a Man," which describes a not-so-great day in the course of a marriage, or the darker break-up song, "Nothing."

Then there is "Grandma," which has quickly become a crowd favorite because of the carpe diem story of a grandma (not his own) who decides, at 92, to "make up for wasted ground." Although the song portrays only one moment, it leaves the impression that grandma continually tried new things.

Hopefully, that same spirit of experimentation will apply to music fans when it comes to Nicholson, especially those who have helped push Big N' Rich and Wilson to the top of the country charts. That way, Nicholson can become the subject of stories for future up-and-coming artists who spend a day in his kitchen.

If you go

What: Jonny Lang with Jon Nicholson

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Red Butte Garden

How much: $29 in advance; $31 day of show

Phone: 325-7328