Way back in 1980, I walked into Village Music in Mill Valley, California, and as I sifted through the records, I found Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee. This 1969 live LP changed my musical life. At the time, I had no exposure to country music other than Hee Haw and Urban Cowboy, but the two-dollar price tag for this album seemed worth spending to have a chuckle while listening to a “right-wing country guy” rail on hippies. But when I put the record on the turntable, I was floored by the beautiful melodic songs sung by a virtuoso singer with lyrics I could actually relate to. The cherry on top was Roy Nichols’ amazing guitar work, which was a revelation.
Roy’s contributions to country guitar are monumental, and his influence on me—and almost every guitar player—is significant, whether you know it or not. A child prodigy who started playing with Rose Maddox at 16, and then moved on to Lefty Frizzell and Wynn Stewart, Roy helped carve out the Bakersfield sound before securing a permanent chair with Merle Haggard for more than 22 years.
On Okie from Muskogee. I was humbled by Roy’s blazing guitar on “Working Man Blues” and “No Hard Times.” When I attempted to learn his solo and fills to “If I had Left It Up to You,” I was further tested by his subtlety and lyricism. At the time, the legato slurs and subtle bending were too challenging for my then hamfisted, British-blues technique. I spent many hours redefining my left- and right-hand skill set after that!
Roy’s solo on “No Hard Times” is in my Top Ten of all-time great guitar solos. He employs open strings, crafty bends, and vocal-like sustain that sounds like two or three guitarists at once. While his solos appear so off-the-cuff and relaxed, if you actually play his lines, you’ll appreciate the intellectual complexity and pure muscle they require.
Okie from Muskogee also includes Haggard’s version of “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive.” This song also appeared on Roy Buchanan’s self-titled Polydor album from 1972, which lead me to discover that Nichols was a great influence on Buchanan. This was another revelation to me in 1980, when pre-Internet times made record shopping an archeological dig.