NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Havighurst) Guitarist Jimmy Nalls, who died in late June after 20 years afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, lost his ability to play but he never lost the admiration of his fellow guitar players in and out of Music City. Over two years, a number of leading pickers and studio musicians worked pro bono to finish an album Nalls had started. The final product is The Jimmy Nalls Project, which was released just days before Nalls fell at his home and died from his injuries.
(music – “Wood And Wire” from The Jimmy Nalls Project, 2017)
Jimmy Nalls was a commanding, emotional guitarist who loomed large in the southern rock and roots scene of the 1970s and who spent time on the road with Dr. John, Lee Roy Parnell, Gregg Allman and others. Some knew him best as one of the founding members of Sea Level, a spinoff of the Allman Brothers featuring keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
Nearly twenty years ago, not long after moving to Nashville, Nalls was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. His longtime friend Joe Glaser, one of Nashville’s most respected guitar technicians and experts, picks up the story:
"I was well aware of Jimmy growing up. When he came to me as a customer I enjoyed it for personal reasons because that music meant a lot to me. When he started showing signs of Parkinson’s, we talked about it. He kind of went downhill for a while. I went to visit him from time to time at his house, and he’d play me things he was working on.”
That included songs he'd written and tracks he'd painstakingly recorded for a solo album. Glaser says the vocals were rough but soulful. The guitar playing though betrayed the toll of the disease.
"And in a way it was beautiful. I mean the irony is that he was known for his vibrato. And pretty soon he had much more vibrato shaking out of his left hand than you could possibly want. At a certain point he quit working on these tunes and they were pretty much forgotten."
Then a colleague named Gabe Hernandez, a vintage instrument dealer, told Glaser that he was intent on helping Nalls finish the record.
"Gabe said well maybe they're far enough to put out. Because we were all interested in helping Jimmy make enough money to make up for the fact that he couldn’t play anymore. Gabe unearthed a hard drive. And we listened to it. It was eight or nine rough songs. Drum machine. Kind of put together. We made an effort to finish it. So it kind of fell on me. Once we decided it sounded like a good idea, I went to these people I know and leaned on them. I started with a few people I knew I could get to take a tune and finish it, and pretty soon we had all seven songs or eight songs.”
The result would be dubbed the Jimmy Nalls Project. And those friends recruited by Glaser constitute an all star lineup of guitarists who are from or regularly work in arguably the top city for guitar players in the world. J.D. Simo joins Joe Bonamossa on one track. Jazz star Larry Carlton makes an appearance, as does country picker Johnny Hiland. And there's some beautiful slide work by former Allman Brothers guitarist Jack Pearson on the track “Steal My Heart.”
(music – “Steal My Heart” from The Jimmy Nalls Project, 2017)
Joe Glaser: "A lot of these people were either close friends of Jimmy's or great admirers growing up, so their reason for doing this - their reason for finding a time in their schedule and doing something that's really kind of a complicated pain the butt, to find a studio and haul your equipment in and set up and play - their reason for doing it was because they cared about Jimmy and because I think frankly if we don't take care of ourselves, nobody else is going to take care of us, as a group of musicians."
The goal was for the Jimmy Nalls Project to raise funds to help the ailing musician make modifications to his home to let him get around more easily and safely. Tragically though that became a moot point when on June 22, Nalls fell down some stairs and died as a result of his injuries. It was just two days after the album had been officially released.
"I think the good news is that he did get to hear the final mixes before his fall and his demise. And so the silver lining is he knew that it was going to happen,” said Chuck Leavell, the famous rock and roll keyboard player and co-founder of Sea Level. He contributed parts to the new album as well.
"Jimmy and I were very very close going all the way back to Alex Taylor. We were roommates. We shared a room and we shared a lot about our personal lives. We were extremely close friends. And so fast forward to the years some 20 odd years ago when Jimmy contracted Parkinson’s Disease, it was just a terrible thing to have to listen to – to say wow my friend has been afflicted with this terrible disease and we all know that it can be debilitating. And in Jimmy's case it certainly was."
Leavell says Sea Level, a band that released five albums between 1976 and 1981, grew out of a side trio with drummer Jaimoe Johanson and bass player Lamar Williams, that would sometimes play private shows or open Allman Brothers dates.
"After the Brothers broke up the three of us – that is Jaimoe, Lamar Williams and myself, kind of looked at each other and we said you know what, we can either all go our separate ways or can keep this idea together and decide what we want to do with it. And at that point we decided of course to keep it together. And I said guys I think we really should add a guitar player and I think we should get Jimmy Nalls donw here. I was very comfortable with Jimmy. I knew his work from the years that we had played together prior. I knew that he could bring something really special to the band and of course he did do that.”
(music – “Tidal Wave” from self-titled debut album by Sea Level, 1977)
His reputation established, Jimmy Nalls spent the 80s and 90s working with some exceptional rock and roots musicians, including Lee Roy Parnell, The Nighthawks and T. Graham Brown. As Parkinson's robbed him of his ability to play, he tried numerous therapies and took a stab at being a recording engineer, just to stay engaged with music. But the decline was relentless.
Joe Glaser says the efforts of the twenty or so players who contributed in various studios over a couple of years to finish the Jimmy Nalls Project was about overcoming some of the helplessness that the musicians felt at Nalls’s condition.
"I think that deep brotherhood, as corny as it sounds, as much as it sounds like soldiers in the trench, it's true of musicians. That deep brotherhood was really clear when we were doing these projects. It was so moving, and that's one of the things. It didn't heal Jimmy Nalls but it healed the rest of us."
The album itself is on sale on the digital platforms. Separate donations to defray the family's medical debt can be made at The Jimmy Nalls Project web site.
(music – “I Miss The Road” from The Jimmy Nalls Project, 2017)