West Coast guitarist Roy Nichols was one of the most influential axemen in country music. Though he was best known for his long run as a member of Merle Haggard’s band the Strangers, Nichols was already a seasoned pro by the time he began playing with Merle, having performed with such legends as Rose Maddox, Wynn Stewart, the Farmer Boys, and Johnny Cash. Still, it’s with Bakersfield that Nichols is most strongly identified: His sharp-edged Telecaster leads became an identifying mark of the honky-tonk music coming out of that working-class California city during the 1950s and ’60s.
Nichols was born October 21, 1932, in Chandler, Arizona; his family moved to California shortly afterward. At age 16 he landed an impressive gig as lead guitarist with the Maddox Brothers & Rose, one of California’s top country acts at the time. In 1953 he played with Lefty Frizzell onstage and on a handful of recordings. A couple years later, Nichols settled in Bakersfield, where he worked in the house band of Cousin Herb Henson’s popular “Trading Post” TV show. He also played with Wynn Stewart into the early 1960s.
Nichols joined Haggard’s band in 1965. His strong, confident guitar leads, alternately punchy, playful, and moody, were a prominent and distinct element of Merle’s recordings and performances. The Strangers also released instrumental albums that showed off their tremendous talents. Nichols eventually tired of life on the road, however, quitting the Strangers in 1987 and going into semi-retirement.
In 1996, Nichols had a serious stroke. To help defray his medical costs, Los Angeles country singer Kathy Robertson, with help from Bonnie Owens, released two tribute CDs under the banner To Roy Nichols With Love. Nichols died July 3. His influence, and his powerful picking, will ring in the ears of country fans for generations to come.