Nashville keyboardist on the cutting edge
The famous “Nashville sound” has had tremendous national impact, helping to launch the careers of some of country music’s brightest stars. This distinctive style is largely attributable to a small group of top session players—seasoned veterans like ace keyboardist Jimmy Nichols, a long-time contributor to the scene. He has played and performed with countless artists, including Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Elton John, Lonestar and Keith Urban. Unlike most country music session players, Nichols is a self-confessed digital junkie—an early adopter of modern technology in a town steeped in tradition. Nichols relies on M-Audio MIDI controllers like the Keystation Pro 88 and Keystation 88es for unparalleled playability and dynamic control of his expansive collection of vintage keyboards, sound modules and studio production gear.
You’ve been firmly entrenched in the Nashville music scene for over a decade. What do you perceive to be Nashville’s impact on the music industry as a whole?
Nashville has become the last bastion of true ensemble recording. We do it every day, and at any given time there may be several dozen sessions going on with the most gifted players anywhere. That’s why the music here has so much feel and heart. We still approach music with the song in mind. It’s all about the lyric and the story. Hopefully it will always be.
Your resume features a very long list of credits that includes many of today’s greatest artists. Which moments or events have been most significant for you?
The first time I worked with Faith Hill, we cut a ballad in one take including her vocal, and it was goose-bump city. Also, I had the honor of doing a song for Elton John on Tammy Wynette’s tribute album. I did the arrangement and the piano part thinking he would replace it once he got the track, but he didn’t! That was huge for me, because he’s always been one of my biggest musical influences.
Your enthusiasm in embracing computer-based technology is rather remarkable in the country genre. What made you decide to go digital?
This may sound weird, but I’ve never considered myself to be more than an average musician. I’ve always believed that to make a niche for myself, I’d have to be as flexible as possible when it comes to my instrument. My projects frequently take me from the studio to the stage and back again, and by staying on top of technology, I’ve kept my sound fresh and distinctive throughout my career. In this town, most keyboardists stick with the tried-and-true stuff, so I figured I would be the one to stretch out and stay cutting edge.
Why did you choose the Keystation Pro 88 as your go-to MIDI controller?
The Keystation Pro 88 has full weighted-action keys, making it perfect for Wurlitzer, or anything else that needs real piano action. The action is a great marriage of stiffness and playability, allowing you to use it for synth stuff along with piano instruments without losing the feel. It’s priceless to have presets with different controller assignments instantly available. I love all the pedal inputs as well, and the extra MIDI port lets me use my Keystation 49e as a second controller for organ simulation and string articulations without needing a separate MIDI interface.
What projects have you used your Keystation Pro 88 on recently?
I use M-Audio gear on virtually everything I do, but the Keystation Pro 88 is at my project studio, where I overdub for many different artists. I used it for the new Carnie Wilson Christmas album, programming everything but the guitars! It’s fully orchestrated using all software instruments and almost every aspect of the Keystation Pro 88. I used it for overdubs on Carrie Underwood’s new album as well.
How has the Keystation 88es proved to be a useful tool in the studio?
When I’m doing a simulated B3 thing, the Keystation 88es works great. Its smaller size makes it perfect for carry-in sessions where I wouldn’t normally be able to bring a full-scale controller. The Keystation 88es gives me the semi-weighted action of a piano controller, without the space and weight of my larger gear. It’s used mostly for demo projects where they can’t afford the bigger rigs I have. Of course the Oxygen 8 is great when I have to program on the road and need something ultra portable. Since I use this stuff on just about all my studio projects, it’s on everything from Lonestar to Faith Hill.
You also have a pair of Studiophile DX4 monitors. How do you use them?
Their portable size allows me to take them anywhere—they have a wide range of applications. I used them backstage for the Soul2Soul II tour every day. They’re indispensable. Along with my Oxygen 8 and FireWire 410, the DX4 monitors practically never leave my side!
You recently started your own record label, Black River Music Group. What precipitated the decision to get involved in label management?
Overall, the recording industry has been growing out of touch with what the buying public wants. It’s like everything in our lives begins to be about the moment and not about the future. Our goal should be building careers—artists that will stand the test of time. Hopefully that’s what the fans want!
What projects are coming up next for you?
I’ve got two artists for the label that I’m working with, and I’m doing more writing for the label. I’ve also got several other studio projects coming up, so there will be very little break for me. I feel very fortunate to make a living doing what I love to do, so I’m planning to continue making hay while the sun shines—now that’s country!