In the middle of the Texas Hill Country, where barbecue brisket is king, a dinner crowd is throwing back crabcakes, fried oysters, flounder and stuffed shrimp.
"Well, I spent all my money on a real fine automobile," he croons. "It's a custom ride, got a pearl-handled steering wheel."
The Hilltop opened in 1980 outside Fredericksburg, Texas., about 75 miles north of San Antonio. It used to be a gas station and beer joint. Nicholas' wife, Brenda, was the genius in the kitchen. He handled the music.
Once a month, Nicholas books a dinner concert in the dining room. You're liable to hear Marcia Ball or Jimmie Vaughan or even Bonnie Raitt or Billy Gibbons. Nicholas plays with his regular group, Hellbent, made up of Austin all-stars like Scrappy Jud Newcomb on guitar and mandolin.
The musicians and diners share a boot-scuffed wooden floor, surrounded by old cabaret posters and neon beer signs. While the Hilltop is in the gravitational field of Austin, 90 miles east, it's a bit far for the tattoo-and-small-dog crowd.
"I've been coming to the Hilltop since I was a little girl," says Melany Canfield, a Mason, Texas, high school counselor who is sitting at a table. "This is the real deal and Johnny is the real deal."
Over against the wall, a solidly built man with a hearty drawl introduces himself as Dick Winters from western central Texas.
"My wife, Susan, and I are both ranchers," he says. "Started coming here right after Johnny and Brenda first opened it in the '80s. And it was a convenient place to stop and have a cold brew on a long drive."
The Hilltop evolved into a Zagat-rated restaurant with rigorous standards for freshness. Brenda Nicholas grew much of the produce in her own gardens. And the couple made six-hour runs to the Gulf Coast to buy snapper, flounder and shrimp right off the docks.
Brenda brought her Cajun-influenced seafood recipes from her hometown in Southeast Texas and trained the cooks.
"People would come for miles just to have her crawfish etouffee, shrimp and sausage," says Sammy Favella, who has been chef for three years.
Johnny Nicholas takes a seat in the back room next to the big stone fireplace. His gray hair is pulled into a ponytail; he has a soul patch under his lower lip. His face bespeaks the years spent on the road.
After he met Brenda, they made the decision to start a family and open the Hilltop.
"Our primary motivation is to serve people food and music that we love, that we would like to eat or listen to," he says, "and that's what people get about it. That's what's special about Hilltop."
Last year, Brenda died after a long fight against lymphoma and leukemia. To defray medical expenses, Johnny's friend Eric Clapton donated one of his Stratocasters — it brought $45,000 at auction.
With Brenda gone, Nicholas has turned the cafe over to his two sons so he can throw all of his energy back into his music career.
Nicholas grew up in Rhode Island, drifted to Ann Arbor, Chicago, Southwest Louisiana and finally Austin. His collaborations in the '70s and '80s read like an encyclopedia of American roots music — from blues greats Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton and Roosevelt Sykes to Cajun accordionist Nathan Abshire. Nicholas also played with the Western swing hippie band Asleep at the Wheel.
Today, he's still known as a bluesman, but much of the time he doesn't sound like one. He puts things in his music — unexpected chord changes and a certain tenderness — that you don't hear in the hard-driving blues-rock bands that dominate the genre these days.
"To me, I don't find it incongruous to have songs with lots of changes, and to do different grooves than your standard blues. That does not exclude them from being blues," he says.
On his critically acclaimed latest album, Fresh Air, most of the songs are his own. Nicholas says he began writing more after the death in 2009 of his friend Stephen Bruton. The revered Austin musician was such a regular, the Hilltop named a dish after him — Oysters Bruton.
"I've always written songs, but always maybe two or three on an album," Nicholas says. "But I never really focused on it and was a little afraid of it, too. So when Stephen passed — and he was such a great writer — I just said, y'know what, this is a wakeup call."
Even though Nicholas is back on the road singing and playing guitar and piano, he hasn't forgotten what his late wife told him on her deathbed.
"We sat down and she said, 'I've got to talk to you. This is very important.' And she said, 'You have to promise me that if you can't keep Hilltop up to my standards, that you'll lock the doors.' And I said, 'I promise, absolutely.'"
And so while the chef is in the kitchen with a mallet tenderizing beef cutlets for chicken-fried steak, Johnny Nicholas is out in the dining room pounding out his special brand of blues.
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