Head north out of Fredericksburg on U.S. 87, and just about the time you reckon you're lost, you'll find the Hill Top Café waiting to greet you.
The establishment's name writ large in cerulean blue on the roof matches the white building's trim that, along with the hot pink crape myrtles and resilient sunflowers, provides a splash of color to the sun-baked browns and withering greens of the water-deprived Hill Country.
Pumps outside the restaurant housed in an old gas station sit dormant, their only job now to provide shade for the small olive trees for sale near the entry of the joint that looks as if it's been relocated from a movie set.
Classic gig posters and vintage album covers paper the walls inside: Records from Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Hopkins share space with weathered art promoting a Professor Longhair show at Tipitina's in New Orleans. Pictures that contain stories you'd kill to hear are mixed among the cultural artifacts. In one, Eric Clapton shares a beer; in another, Jimmie Vaughan's face tilts with a grin.
The common denominator in these photos is a younger version of the affable and effortlessly hip man in Wayfarer sunglasses, brown blazer and ostrich boots who greets Hill Top Café customers while slipping in and out of Spanish with a member of his kitchen staff as Harry Choates sings "Valse de Lake Charles" on the stereo.
With his pencil-thin mustache and tendrils of salt-and-pepper hair, Johnny Nicholas, dressed in a black T-shirt with a gold cross draped across his neck, looks like Mickey Rourke probably wishes he did.
The emergence of the renowned blues guitarist signals that the Hill Top Café is no museum or sleepy monument to the blues. It serves as a vital extension of a man who has helped cultivate and honor the tradition the restaurant's artifacts commemorate and celebrate.
After years of keeping a relatively low profile out in the Hill Country, sporadically traveling for gigs, Nicholas has put out his first studio album in six years. With "Future Blues," Nicholas offers to the world his authentic blues sound that until recently had been largely reserved for the customers who were lucky enough to catch one of the impromptu sets at the Hill Top Café.
Nicholas and his wife, Brenda — the Hill Top's true engine, as an unprompted Johnny Nicholas will let you know — opened the restaurant in 1981 after moving to the country from Austin. Mixed among the scenes of musical legends at work and play are pictures of Astros. Not the Houston variety, but the Little League teams sponsored by the cafe. That's what brought the Nicholases out to this spot smack dab in the middle of nowhere: family. The chance to be closer to Brenda's and the desire to build one of their own.
It might not be in vogue for young musicians to admit, but Johnny Nicholas, father to sons Willie, 18, and Alex, 23, is an unabashed family man. The restaurant echoes the experience of his own childhood growing up in his grandmother's restaurant in Rhode Island. Family taught him the not-mutually-exclusive values of hard work and joyful play. And it was family that first turned him on to the other love of his life.
A young Nicholas often would accompany his family to Greek functions where he would hear rembetiko music. While the bluesy, folksy music seemed foreign to him, its soulfulness resonated with the child. But it was the radio and his older brother Billy's record collection that first truly inspired Nicholas.
"The first people that I really listened to and grooved to when I was a kid were Ray Charles and Fats Domino and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, all the stuff R&B-wise that was popular in that time," Nicholas said.
His brother not only turned him onto Charles, he also helped a 10-year-old Nicholas transform an old cigar box into his first guitar.
While the jazz and folk festivals of Rhode Island offered a tangible taste of the musical world which he longed to inhabit, the insatiable Nicholas left home after high school to track down his heroes and learn from the greats.
His blues pilgrimage took him south in 1966 to New York City and clubs like Steve Paul's Scene, Café au Go Go and Ungano's, where a star-struck Nicholas first saw Howlin' Wolf perform live. Not satisfied to simply attend gigs, Nicholas tracked down the legend at the Albert Hotel and, after receiving an introduction from guitar player Hubert Sumlin, spent the entire week hanging out with Wolf and his band.
"It was the deepest and most impressive thing I'd ever seen," said Nicholas, who went to every Wolf show that week in New York City. "It had a really deep effect on me about the Wolf himself and what kind of person he was. On stage, he was as wild and amazing and as great a showman and as great an artist as I'd ever dreamed he would be from listening to his records, but then at the hotel hanging out with him \u2026 he was such a down-home guy. He was also a real business man. He had ledgers for all the guys, and he told me, 'If you don't take care of your business, it won't take care of you.' That made a big impression on me. He reminded me a lot of my family and the way my dad was. My folks, they loved to have fun, but they were also very strict in other respects."
A hunger to learn and travel cut short Nicholas' time at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and the young guitar player headed to the blues mecca of Chicago, where he cut his teeth playing at places like Pepper's Lounge and earned the respect of those he had long admired.
"The thing that blew my mind as a kid was that these guys were non-rock-star personality type guys," Nicholas said. "When they saw what I could do music-wise, I became respected by those guys for being who I was. Didn't have nothing to do with me being Greek, or white or brown or any other thing else. It was what I could do because I had the goods and they knew that. I was taken in and that's just the way it was with all those old timers."
Nicholas moved to the fertile blues scene of Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1970 and formed the Boogie Brothers, a band that would open for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. George Frayne (Cody) invited Nicholas and his band out to the San Francisco Bay Area for a trip that would eventually change the Rhode Island native's life. It was there that Nicholas met booming-voiced Ray Benson and his Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel.
"They dug us and we dug them," Nicholas said. "It's all real music. It's different styles, but in a way it's all folk music."
Following his stint on the West Coast, Nicholas continued his rambling ways, spending time in Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Louisiana before making his way to Texas.
Nicholas eventually landed in Austin and joined Asleep at the Wheel as a keyboard player. He performed with the band from 1978 to 1980, playing his last gig with the Wheel at the closing of the Armadillo World Headquarters on New Year's Eve 1980.
It was not just the vibrant music scene that sparked Nicholas' imagination in the Austin of the '70s. Nicholas had first come to town around 1974 to play with his friends, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Hanging out with Jimmie Vaughan and bass player Keith Ferguson at Antone's, Nicholas spotted a young woman who helped run the bar. Brenda Schlaudt had gone to school with Clifford Antone in Port Arthur, and the beguiling beauty became a fixture at Austin's home of the blues.
"I saw her walk by and I told Keith, 'Who's that?' And he said, 'You can't touch that, man.'\u2009"
Undeterred, Nicholas said every time he'd return to Austin, he'd tell his buddy Vaughan, "Let's go find Brenda."
Eventually he did.
"We knew of one another but didn't meet until that one night at Antone's," Brenda Nicholas said. "He was all dressed to the nines in his gabardine pants. Dressed really cool. When he was in town, he'd come over. I had a party at my house one time and Jimmie and everyone were there, and we were cooking and Johnny brought over some of his Greek-style okra. It was great. But, of course, all the girls were in love with Johnny. (laughs) Then he'd leave town and he'd write me a letter and he'd come back to town. We were just best friends, you know? I was head over heels for Johnny. It was like a love that was like from heaven or something. I think we're just truly soul mates."
After 15 years of bouncing all over the country playing with musicians like Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton and Snooky Pryor and performing everywhere from Oakland, Calif., to Boston, Johnny Nicholas decided it was time to settle down. The couple married in 1980 and the next year headed to the area between Fredericksburg and Mason near Brenda Nicholas' grandparents' ranch and shifted into country-living mode. They lived off the land, hunting their own food and chopping their own wood. They soon opened the Hill Top Café.
With a little grill and a Coleman camp stove, Brenda Nicholas built a small menu representative of the food she had always cooked for family and friends: hamburgers, chili and boudin. The menu, along with the kitchen, expanded over the years to include grilled stuffed pork chops, chicken-fried steak and some of the best oyster and shrimp po-boys you will find from here to the Gulf Coast. While Johnny acknowledges Brenda is the chef in the family, he has managed to slide onto the menu some dishes such as kefalotiri saganaki and shrimp Mytilini that honor his Greek heritage. Eating a Greek salad topped with Cajun shrimp, a culinary creation indicative of both his heart and his soul, Nicholas even talks about his food like a bluesman. "I've got a homemade tartar sauce that kills," he said.
Though the Hill Country provided a wonderful setting for raising a family, and the restaurant built a loyal following, Johnny Nicholas realized that his relocation had caused him to disappear from people's radars. But with a piano in the dining room and the call of Brenda Nicholas' food beckoning friends that included Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Snooky Pryor, Marcia Ball, Pinetop Perkins (an avowed lover of Brenda's "shrimps") and Bonnie Raitt, the Hill Top has never remained quiet for too long.
"Some amazing music has happened here. But the music's not the main thing here," Nicholas said. "The food is. This place is a restaurant first and foremost. When amazing music happens, it's a great thing, but it's not like this is a music place. You might get to hear some great music, but you'll always get an amazing meal."
"Future Blues" puts to rest any notion that his creative fires have been relegated to the kitchen. The album, composed of tunes written by Nicholas except for a re-arranged cover of the title track, a Willie Brown Tune, and a rollicking take on Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," showcases Nicholas' array of instrumental talent (guitar, mandolin, piano, harmonica) while traveling from Texas to Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta to mine the blues from a variety of styles.
The bouncing swampy swing of "Hey Hey" and the staccato rhythms of the New Orleans-tinged "Hell Bent" give way to the down-and-dirty slink of "Hard Time Livin," and the knowing blues of "That's the Price" before the album reaches its epiphanic conclusion with the gospel testimony of "Steadfast."
The heart of the album, though, thumps slow and strong underneath the weeping twang of "Roads on Fire." Nicholas has experienced his share of loss and heartache: first his brother Billy to a car accident as a teenager. Most recently his good friend Stephen Bruton — to whom the album is dedicated — two years ago to cancer. In between, his son Rio, who died 10 years ago at age 19, a freshman in college. His death was ruled an accidental overdose; the Nicholas family believes he was killed and the investigation mismanaged.
"I lost my best friend. I lost my brother, I spent my time lookin' for cover," Nicholas sings, before adding that he "never lost hope."
"You can have a certain individual who can inspire you, but if it's a really great song it should encompass more than that," Nicholas said. "To where it becomes universal to humanity and not just about Johnny Nicholas. You're a musician if you can communicate to people with notes and feelings and lyrics and all of those things in any combination where it touches your soul. The blues was always a vehicle to tell stories, and that's what I'm trying to do with my new album is tell stories."
The loss of his son delayed Nicholas' return to recording and playing live, he says, but after gigging with the Texas Sheiks in 2009, bass player and producer Bruce Hughes (the Resentments) came to Nicholas and, once he heard some of the guitar player's new work, suggested the two work together. Hughes says he had always been impressed by Nicholas' voice and the unaffected way he performs.
"I love his voice. That's one of the things that we as human beings connect with ultimately," Hughes said. "Johnny's voice just had this character to it that I knew if we could just grab that that we could make a great record. The songs had this incredible depth to them \u2026 it was not your normal, jump-swing, blues-boogie kind of stuff. It was like, 'This is the real; this is the real (expletive) that I was talkin' about.' There's something about Johnny that's so authentic that it's hard for people to get a grasp on."
Hughes, who produced "Future Blues," plays bass on the album, which includes fellow Texas Sheik Cindy Cashdollar on pedal steel and Austinite Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitar and banjo. Vaughan and his Stratocaster also make an appearance on several songs.
Nicholas says he looks forward to taking the new material on the road, but admits that the blues scene has changed considerably during the past 30 years. Following the phenomenal and short-lived career and subsequent canonization of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nicholas says many young cats simply tried to ape the Texas legend's style, playing too loudly and lacking any true spiritual connection to the notes they are battering. To Nicholas' ear, much of it couldn't even be considered blues. It's rock 'n' roll, Nicholas says. And bad rock 'n' roll at that.
"The real blues? It's a combination of a tenderness and a hardness together," Nicholas said. "You have to have that balance. You have to have a deep soul in terms of being able to really feel the stuff. The other part of it is, man, I hate to say it: It's kind of like cooking — you either got it or you don't. I've seen a ton of people come to try and get a job here and say, 'Oh, I went to this cooking school or that.' And I say, 'Show me a plate of food.' My wife, Brenda, never went to cooking school. She went to school with these old ladies in Port Arthur and her grandmother. But beyond that, she just had it. Whatever she does is magic. So let me put it like that. The blues is magic."
Johnny Nicholas' ‘Future Blues' is available now.
More: www.guitarjohnny nicholas.com .
The Hill Top Café: 10661 N. U.S. 87, Fredericksburg. Reservations recommended for dinner: 830-997-8922; www.hilltopcafe.com .