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Jeb Loy Nichols Mixes It Up In 'Parish Bar'

Jeb Loy Nichols may sing that he's "just a country boy," but the music surrounding that sentiment is designed to contradict him to his advantage. Nichols has made his cult by recording mixtures of country, jazz and soul music — often acoustic, much of it low-key to the point of enervating. But this new collection, which Nichols says he recorded over the past couple years — mostly at home in his spare time between other projects — is his most inviting album yet. It seems both offhand and sincerely curious in its musical explorations.

One of the songs on the album, "CountryMusicDisco45," is inspired by a real-life event, Nichols says: at a dance, with a DJ playing a lot of disco, the mix was suddenly enhanced by a Charlie Rich record. (Charlie Rich was a big star primarily in the 70s, for ballads like "Behind Closed Doors.") In a similar way, Jeb Loy Nichols' song and its lyrics emphasize how much he likes to mix things up — that he feels crossing genres is essential to him to keep his music vital. That certainly comes across on this song, "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome Too," a song credited to one James B. Smith, but just as often ascribed to a collaboration between Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. Nichols, however, radically rearranges this bluegrass number.

As the new beats in "I'm Blue I'm Lonesome Too" prove, Nichols has a knack for rearranging songs without turning them into stunts. The sentiment about being blue and lonesome comes across as effectively as it did in its 50-year-old country context, even if Nichols has nothing on Bill Monroe's band when it comes to vocals and instrumentation. In fact, Nichols' tendency is to murmur words in a snoozy manner, a casual conversational croon that owes a lot to Mose Alllinson and Leon Redbone. For every bit of earned intimacy, there's a hint of too-cool-by-half. It's a tone he drops on "Satan's Helper," a cover of Tom T. Hall's country song about alcohol that benefits from Nichols' straightforward singing.

If his self-conscious eclecticism is what prevents Nichols from getting more than a toe-hold into the mainstream, it's also what keeps him interesting. Essentially a music bohemian — drifting though styles in the same way he's lived in and left boho-friendly places like Manhattan and Austin, Texas — Nichols is like a modern-day Beat poet, he rides rhythms wherever they take him. As Parish Bar proves, sometimes pleasant aimlessness is its own reward.

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Corrected: January 16, 2009 at 8:52 AM CST
An earlier online version of this story indicated that 'Parish Bar' was Jeb Loy Nichols' first album as a singer-songwriter. In fact, the musician has recorded previous albums as a singer-songwriter.
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.