By the time you read this, Nathan Nicholson and his wife, Helen — along with their son, Teddy — will be on a plane headed back to England.
Some of you may remember Nathan from his days growing up in Blount County; he graduated from Maryville High School in 1999 and headed to Florida State University; during his freshman year, his mother, Susan, passed away, and he headed overseas as part of a study-abroad program, both to further his education and to assuage his grief. He’d been a couple of times before, with his parents in 1995 and with other MHS drama students during his sophomore year, but this time, he met an Australian guitarist, Todd Howe, and decided to stay.
He’d always been into music; he took guitar lessons at Murlin’s Music World, back when local flatpick champion Steve Kaufman was teaching there, as a kid, picking it up again in high school and playing at open-mic nights around Knoxville’s Old City. His mother’s death inspired him to pursue his dreams, however, and he and Todd put together The Boxer Rebellion. An indie pop-rock outfit that draws heavily on Nathan’s love of Oasis, the band went through a number of stops and starts before releasing its sophomore album, “Union,” in 2009.
It was a self-financed album that was available solely through iTunes, and within 24 hours of its release, it had entered both the U.S. and the British charts, peaking at No. 6 on the iTunes U.S. Albums Chart and No. 2 on the iTunes U.S. Alternative Chart. It was a previously unheard of feat — a band without a label and with no physical product in brick-and-mortar record stores exploding through digital sales alone. Such success garnered The Boxer Rebellion coverage in such illustrious British publications as The Daily Telegraph, The Evening Standard and NME, and iTunes editors named it the Best Alternative Album of 2009 at the end of the year.
I’ve been writing about The Boxer Rebellion since that year, but I’ve had the good fortune to get to know Nathan and his family through their visits back to Blount County, when they would reconnect with his father and step-mother, Joe and Molly; we try to grab lunch when we can, and over time, our lives have dovetailed into this curious parallel journey of celebration and tragedy.
In 2013, Teddy was born a week before my youngest son, Cullen, arrived six weeks early; Nathan was one of the first people who reached out while Cullen was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, offering congratulations and well-wishes. And earlier this year, our fathers died less than 24 hours apart.
I got to know Joe through his son; a longtime Maryville attorney, he was proud of both of his boys, and at one point, he talked to me about taking out a full-page ad in The Daily Times congratulating The Boxer Rebellion on the band’s accomplishments. It never came to pass, and I’m sure if it had, a number of readers would have been scratching their heads. The Boxer Rebellion isn’t exactly a household name here in the United States, and the one time the band played a show here — in 2010 at the Clayton Center for the Arts — it was sparsely attended. (The guys did, however, get a great live album out of it: “Live in Tennessee” was recorded and mastered here in Maryville and is a fantastic document of the band’s live show.)
Early next year, The Boxer Rebellion will release its sixth album, “Ghost Alive,” and as one of the privileged few who’s heard an advance copy, I can tell you that it’s a beautiful record. It’s more acoustic, less synthesizer-heavy than 2016’s “Ocean By Ocean,” and filled with the sort of sweet ache that Nathan’s voice imparts so well. It was written before his father’s death, but it’s taken on new meaning in the months since, and I hear in the melancholy ruminations that, during the recording process, the loss he felt imbued the lyrics with a heavier emotional resonance.
It’s both bizarre and beautiful how the two of us have struck up such a friendship, one forged in music, made sweeter by birth and tempered by death. I love hearing his tales of being a Blount County expatriate living in East London and his stories from the road — being introduced to Michael Stipe of R.E.M. by the members of Hanson at the South By Southwest music conference, for example, and Stipe, having misheard his name, calling him “Mason” throughout their conversation. I love hearing about his boy, and how our sons are themselves developing along similar paths, and about his beautiful stepmother, whose loss echoes that of my own mom.
More than anything else, I’m grateful for a friendship that’s endured across an ocean. We may not be able to grab lunch on a regular basis or catch a show with our wives or let our boys play on the playground together, but we stay in touch. And we carry on in the wake of loss, two men without fathers who are fathers themselves, making our way in this world with the help of family and music and the knowledge that our departed loved ones are looking down and smiling at every step we take toward an unknown future filled with wonder and possibility.
Godspeed, my friend. Good luck out there on the road, in England and abroad, and I’ll catch you the next time you come back home again.