North Shore Sunday
newspaper article
Vol. 16 No. 5
August 30, 1992

He Can See Nashville
And for Beverly (Massachusetts) songwriter James Nihan - whose hit "I Can See Arkansas" was recorded by Anne Murray - the Nashville music scene is getting brighter all the time.

Written by Alexander Stevens

Singer-songwriter James Nihan has always had a fascination with Nashville. Now it seems Nashville is developing an interest in him.

His fixation on the country music capital began in 1969, when, as a 12-year-old Beverly boy, he bought a Silvertone guitar from a genuine, Nashville, guitar-picking salesman at the Sears Roebuck store in Peabody.

His fascination was crystallized years later at a gas station in Portsmouth, N.H., where he met two country singers who had driven up from Nashville in an old Rambler.

"They were a couple of big ol' boys with 1950s hair cuts, going to a gig in Bangor, Maine. In the back, I saw a girl with platinum blond hair sleeping between the speakers," says Nihan, smiling at the memory - his own blond girlfriend, Susan Davis, not quite close enough to hear. "Nashville was starting to become something of a myth for me."

Now, country music is very much a reality for Nihan. His career recently got a big boost when "Snowbird" legend Anne Murray recorded his song "I Can See Arkansas" on her most recent album. Her affection for the song was obvious when she also chose to include it on her recently released "15 of the Best" CD - that's 15 of the 240 songs she's recorded.

If the fated meeting with the two rambling musicians completed his fascination with Nashville, it might also have reinforced his sense of wanderlust. He left home at the age of 21, in a $300 car and with $800 in his pocket. He lived in Texas for a year because that's where the car broke down, and that's how long it took him to get it fixed. Then he moved on to Arizona for a year, before heading to California for another six years. But the ultimate destination of this pilgrimage was Nashville, where he's been living since 1987.

He's currently celebrating a homecoming, as he's returned north for a three-week vacation in Beverly Farms. He kicked off the reunion with an acoustic concert last week at the North Shore Garden Café Coffeehouse at Endicott College in Beverly.

It was very much of a family affair, as the Nihan (and Sullivan) clan turned out in full force to welcome their native son home. Nihan acknowledged the familial atmosphere as soon as he took the stage and adjusted the mike.

"First of all, I want to thank everyone for noticing that I've gained a lot of weight," said Nihan, to the amusement of the crowd.

The other topic of discussion before the concert was the length of his hair - now past his shoulders and flecked with gray. On stage, Nihan had an easy humor - "I kind of felt like the host of a cocktail party," he said later, "but the actual performance was a piece of cake" - cultivated, no doubt, by countless performances in venues such as the famed Bluebird in Nashville. The Bluebird is the mecca of the country music capital, where Nihan has performed often, and where he has seen the likes of Garth Brooks and Johnny Cash in the audience.

In addition to his relaxed charm, Nihan has an easy playing style. He had plenty of material for the concert, and it quickly became obvious that most of his work was lyric-driven songs, often about lost loves and fading memories. The added weight that he joked about may have bolstered the timbre and resonance of a voice that's been compared to Gordon Lightfoot and Johnny Cash. And this Beverly Farms boy has adopted not only the hometown of Nashville, but also a distinct trace of its twang.

Sad Songs Say So Much
The most easily recognizable trait of Nihan's music is its tendency to be edged with sadness. That's certainly true of memorable Nihan songs like "In Between Goodbye And Hello," "Brothers Of The Wind," and Nihan's biggest hit to date, "I Can See Arkansas."

There's a natural wonder between us,
But it doesn't seem natural to me
That you could walk away from the love we made
Here in Tennessee.
And leave everything that we worked for
And start a brand new life
I saw you drive across the Memphis Bridge
But I don't believe my eyes.

O, I can see Arkansas across the Mississippi
I can see a big river barge heading down to New Orleans
I can see the cotton fields on the other side
And the sun going down again
I can see Arkansas
But I still don't see why the love we had should end.

However wistful and subdued the song may be, it didn't stop "I Can See Arkansas" from going (Top 10) on the country charts in Anne Murray's home country of Canada. It's also up for awards as Best Single and Best Video at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Nihan says the song was hurt in the United States by the fact that just after releasing it in 1991, Murray ended her 15-year relationship with Capital Records, and the song (and the album) received no promotion.

The melancholy nature of much of Nihan's work may be attributed to his interest in writing about lost love. On the tape that Nihan recorded live at the Bluebird, he introduces "Heartbreaker No. 63" by saying, "This is a song about me getting my heart broken…several times."

"It may be selfish of me, but I wish he'd write more upbeat songs," says Nihan's girlfriend, Susan Davis. "Radio stations play more upbeat, dance-type songs."

In case this sounds like criticism, let it be noted that Davis champions his music. Even if she were eventually to become Heartbreaker No. 64, she's definitely Fan No. 1.

"These are the (sad) emotions that he's learned to express so well. He's master of it," she says.

It would be easy for Nihan to choose "I Can See Arkansas" as his favorite song. It's the song that's brought him the most attention, he felt it was special when he wrote it, and he knew it was after the reaction he got when he first performed it at the Bluebird.

But another song comes to mind when Nihan is asked his favorite. It's a sad ballad called "I Sure Miss The Old You."

He wrote the song by himself, but he has also been know to collaborate on songs, as he did on "I Can See Arkansas." Davis points out that Nihan also makes time for new songwriters on the Nashville scene.

"He's very generous with his time," she says. "If he feels a person is sincere about writing cooperatively, then he'll spend the time to help the (new) songwriters find their bearings."

Achy breaky hearts

Sadly, such good will is not always rewarded in the music business. It's a fickle, political game, according to Nihan.

While he enjoys performing and has been encouraged by on-going talks with record companies about signing a record contract, he remains circumspect about the recording-star game. "There are 240 recording artists on major labels," he says. "How many do you know about?"

He feels his most marketable strength in Nashville is songwriting, even though that's an equally tough road.

"Songwriters depend on the whims of artists, producers and the label," he says. "An artist might love the song, convince the producer it belongs on the album, and then the label turns it down."

He also points out that if there are six people in a music group, it takes only one member of the group to veto a song.

That's the kind of delicate negotiation that's going on now with a group from Mississippi. They're interested in a song that Nihan wrote with the group Alabama in mind. If the Mississippi group decides to record it, Nihan will make one small adjustment. Instead of "the Alabama moon won't shine," it will become "the Mississippi moon won't shine."

"Luckily both 'Alabama' and 'Mississippi' have four syllables," Nihan points out.

Even if a song is picked up by a major star, the songwriter is not home free. The writer of "Achy Breaky Heart," which was recorded by country music phenom Billy Ray Cyrus, may make hundreds of thousands of dollars for its author, but the rewards for most songwriters are much more modest.

The difficulty for songwriters has also been increased by the growing desire of country artists to write their own material, Nihan says.

"If 10 years ago you had ten chances to get a song recorded on an album, now you only have four."

But its not all bad news. Although the industry is more fickle than ever, that unpredictability adds a level of excitement. He says as country music enters a new, popular age, the breadth of material being considered by country stars continues to expand.

"The whole thing is changing," says Nihan. "You can write a deep political song and you might get it cut. You never know."

Nihan says he's come to enjoy life in "the buckle of the Bible belt."

"I miss the ocean, though. We've got the Cumberland River that feeds into the Mississippi, but I miss the ocean."

The return to the North Shore has been a return to the home where his music interests were first cultivated. He remembers having paper routes for the Beverly Times and the Salem News that helped finance his first guitar.

He also remembers the day he and a friend (Bruce Clark) went down to Salem Willows, because they heard there was a booth there where you could record your own song. "But the booth was gone," he says with a smile. "So we had chop suey sandwiches and dreamed of being stars."

He's back in town, and the dream doesn't seem quite so distant.

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