Nick Nicholson and Desperado Bluegrass
B.K. (Nick) Nicholson is a San Diego based singer-songwriter who plays mandolin in two Southern California bands, High Mountain Road(HMR), and his band, Desperado Bluegrass. He is a multi-instrumentalist who not only enjoys band work, but also writing, arranging, and producing his works and those of other artists as well.
Note: This is an update to an interview previously published the California Bluegrass Association Breakdown publication.
Hi Nick. Tell the readers how you first got hooked on bluegrass.
I’d played acoustic guitar for many years, and while looking for jam opportunities I was steered to a bluegrass jam in Encinitas that was beginner-friendly. Because of my musical background with acoustic easy listening, country, and southern gospel, there was a sense of familiarity about bluegrass that was comfortable. I’d wanted at various times to pick up the banjo, so I acquired one, and after six months decided to try the mandolin. The rest, as they say, is history.
What instruments do you play?
Mandolin, guitar, banjo, electric bass, piano, and trumpet.
What did you start with?
My first instrument was the classical trumpet, which I studied for ten years. I adopted jazz and R&B styles early on and was playing trumpet in an R&B cover band on the weekends in high school.
Was your family musical?
Very much so. My mother was a retired professional music teacher from the Philadelphia public school system. There was always a piano in the house, a stereo console in the living room, and music in the air. My father sang, and I was the eldest sibling, so I was the first of my brothers to study an instrument.
Who was your biggest musical influence growing up?
Initially it would have to be my mother because she set the tone and was nurturing to a degree. I had many influences as a child: Motown, Rick Nelson of the Ozzie & Harriet show, and the Top 40 AM radio of the late ’60s.
What about later?
Later I got heavily into jazz and R&B because of my trumpet playing. When I took up the guitar at 17, I got more into rock ‘n’ roll, and eventually acoustic styles like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, the Eagles, and blues styles like the Allman Brothers.
Do you do any composing?
Early on I started writing on the piano, and I consider myself first and foremost a songwriter. I’ve written, produced, and recorded multiple sessions over the years, and a sample of my work can be found on SoundCloud. I’ve only recently begun to expand my songwriting to the bluegrass and old-time genres.
How do you approach a new song or tune?
If we’re talking about learning a new song, first it has to speak to me. I then learn the melody while figuring out the chord changes. Writing is completely different. I just get songs or melodies in my head, which I record first and then work out later. Sometimes I will “construct” a song based on a particular theme or idea.
Tell us about some of the bluegrass songs you have written.
I’ve written several instrumentals that I would classify as mando-fiddle tunes. One has been recorded, it’s called Mariam’s Song, and it is a regular feature of live performances. It will be on the upcoming solo project that I plan on releasing. Another which I have released is titled Is Love What You’ll Find?, and I would probably classify it as a country-rock with bluegrass instrumentation.
Tell us about the bands you’ve played in.
I played in an R&B cover band and a jazz-rock band in high school. In the early ’80s, I was in a four-piece acoustic ensemble a-la Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, then a trio of vocalists with two of us playing guitar. That was it until 2011 when I got into a “buddy” band called the North County Boys where I played banjo and guitar.
What about bluegrass bands?
From September 2012 to the pandemic I was a member of High Mountain Road (HMR), a band that played a mix of traditional and contemporary bluegrass. We had three vocalists who sang lead, and we felt that our harmonies and singing were unique. I started my own band, B.K. Nicholson & Desperado Bluegrass, in December of 2015, and it is what I call nowadays “Authentic” Country music: a mix of traditional, contemporary, bluegrass with southern blues-rock done bluegrass style, all at a very high-energy feel and speed; and all acoustic of course with bluegrass instrumentation…the song I released that I referenced earlier, Is Love What You’ll Find is a good example of what B.K. Nicholson & Desperado is all about.
Since the spring of this year, I have also been a fill-in on guitar/mando for a local band called The Vulcan Mountain Boys. Their guitarist/vocalist, Billy Frisbie, tragically passed away around this time last year from a sudden onset of an incurable brain cancer pathology. Kinda like Vince Gill could never “replace” Glen Frey, I could never “replace” Billy, but I’m privileged to be asked by the guys to fill in the void to keep the band moving forward. We stay busy locally at least a couple of times/month.
Tell us about B.K. Nicholson & Desperado.
I used to feature violinist/fiddler John-Michael Brooks, who I believe was the best fiddler in California (2017 Calif. State Champ in the Twin Fiddle division). That’s saying a lot, but besides his chops, nobody I’ve ever heard could touch his rich tone. Sadly, John-Michael passed away suddenly on his 27th birthday in Feb 2018. He was a Mark O’Connor protégé from Berkeley who I was fortunate enough to connect with on both a personal and musical level; he was a dear friend. The personnel in B.K. Nicholson & Desperado is a consortium or roster of types that I use to form gig-specific lineups…I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
Do you play any old-time or other traditional music?
I play fiddle tunes on the mandolin, but generally don’t attend old-time sessions, more out of schedule. I also play a lot of different music on different instruments. As an example, I play the mandola in church every week.
What fiddle tunes do you love?
Love might be a strong word, but I like Soldier’s Joy, Salt Creek, Cherokee Shuffle, Forked Deer, Swallowtail Jig, Garry Owen, Blackberry Blossom…kinda the standards; also John Reischman’s The Eighth of February is a favorite that I like to play while busking.
Do you have any recordings planned?
I’m still putting the finishing touches on a solo project that I anticipate will be ready by the beginning of this summer. It’s a mix of bluegrass, country, acoustic easy listening, and gospel, titled appropriately, Eclectricity. I have a few tracks that are in need of mastering…and I will be releasing a special track from my perspective that is strongly country-blues in its style…titled Love Will Win.
Have you ever taken these bands on the road?
Desperado and HMR have both traveled out of state to gigs, but it wasn’t a tour.
What interests you when you are not playing music?
I’m a Renaissance kind of guy with multiple interests: sports, sci-fi, SQL database programming, history, movies, and cuisine among others.
Do you teach music?
Yes I have one mandolin student, and two guitar students. I think it’s important to have a balance between nurturing and reinforcing the right habits.
Are there any shows coming up this year you are looking forward to?
B.K. Nicholson has kinda been on a self-imposed hiatus since the pandemic; I’ve played several solo gigs, and have done some duet gigs with two different friends; Lou Shriinkle of The Vulcan Mountain Boys and a young man named Joe Miller, who is a fantastic flat-picker on guitar.
What shows in the past are memorable?
HMR at Summergrass in 2015, as that was our first big festival, and Desperado at the Southern Nevada Bluegrass Music Society’’s Logandale Fall Festival, and all the gigs I played with John-Michael; one that stands out is January of 2017 High Mountain Road at the Library in DelMar; which I plan to release on YouTube soon.
Have you played any CBA events?
No, but I went to IBMA the past two years, and this year shot a bunch of video footage as sort of a video diary; jams, mando tasting, a mando comparison between the new Gibson 1923 Authentic F5 and my own Weber signed Gibson ’94 F5L…Jeremy Chapman of The Acoustic Shoppe and I played the same song (Come Hither To Go Yonder) on both mandolins, switched mandos, and then played the song again. I also got to visit with mandolinist extraordinaire, Tony Willamson, where we played together and switched off on different mandos. I captured all of this on video and will share the YouTube links with you as part of this interview!
I first met with you at the Great 48, and I recall you are really into Bill Monroe. What do you like about his style?
Monroe style is a raw, heavily blues, mountain style of playing that just speaks to my musical soul. It’s not a clean, classical, or folk style that tends to dominate mandolin players these days. I love its raw, almost angry, energy. Most people don’t get it, but that’s OK as it’s not for everybody. Chris Henry put it his way: “Monroe style is a spiritual thing. It’s a small chosen few that are initiated. Non-believers are like atheists.” I would call my style Rock MonRoll…
Are there any particular eras of bluegrass that are your favorite?
Again, I’m pretty eclectic. I mean, who else does the Steve Miller Band’s Take The Money And Run or the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man in a bluegrass set? But I prefer the first generation of bluegrass…Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Rounder 0044, etc.
Describe some musical challenges you have had and how you overcame them.
My biggest hurdle with tremolo picking was a loose wrist. I used to weight train back in my Navy days. Wrapping wrists is common because you don’t want your wrists to move, so as a result my wrists are very tight. I had to do stretching exercises and loose motion drills to get my right wrist loose enough to become competent on the mandolin. Loose wrist, loose pick grip.
Have you always enjoyed singing?
I’ve been singing my whole life and it’s second nature to me. I’ve been blessed with a good ear, and used to practice singing harmony religiously, so it all comes as second nature these days.
Who are your favorite singers?
Multiple genre response: The Cathedrals Quartet with Danny Funderburk on tenor, Steve Green, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Steve Perry, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Brad Delp (Boston), Motown, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Eagles, Chicago (Robert Lamm, Terry Kath and Pete Cetera), Whitney Houston, Aretha, Pavarotti…
What other artists excite you?
Too many to list, but a quick bluegrass answer would be Ricky Skaggs, Bluegrass Album Band, Rounder 0044, David Grisman, Johnson Mountain Boys, Jim & Jesse, and the Stanley Brothers, to name a few. It all starts with Monroe for me!
What make and model instruments do you play?
I used to have a bunch: three guitars, two banjos, four mandolins… All I own is my mandolin soul-mate: a 1994 Gibson F5-L made in Bozeman, Montana by Bruce Weber’s team, and signed by Larry Barnwell and Bruce Weber. It was Zach Ostgaard’s for about four years, and he had purchased it from Jeff Fleck of Burning Heart Bluegrass. This mandolin is known in bluegrass circles in California as “Zach’s mandolin,” and it was distressed enough by Zach that it looks and sounds like a vintage Gibson.
I’ve let several touring pros from Nashville play it – Nathan Livers, Michael Cleveland, Adam Steffey, Sierra Hull, Jesse Brock, and Zack Autry, also now Danny Roberts, Chris Henry, Tony Willamson, and Richard Brown. All are impressed by it, to name a few – and every one of them gives it a strong endorsement that usually goes, “that’s a really good F5!” Tom Mullen, who played a long time ago with the Bluegrass Cardinals, said it was one of the best mandolins he’s ever played, including Loars! I don’t know about all that, but it’s a “good’un.” Tony Williamson believes tonally it is a combination of Loar low end and ’20s Fern midrange/highs.
Any final thoughts or things you want to share with the readers?
Yes, I have been running an internet radio station for the last two years or so called KFBCG which is K Folk Bluegrass Country Gospel. It is as eclectic as the call sign is, but there is bluegrass-specific programming; just check out the schedule to see what might be of interest, or you can let it play in the background as a kind of Pandora-type playlist.
Thanks so much for your time Nick, yours is an interesting story
You’re welcome Dave, I’m looking forward to reading this.