Before Joe Nichols went into the studio to cut the tracks for “Crickets,” his first record in two years, he made a couple of key decisions.
“I wanted to do the traditional songs that satisfy my country soul,” he said during a phone interview from the road. “And, I wanted to do another half of the record to bring new people into our world.”
Nichols made his mark as a country traditionalist, but realizes he must stretch a bit to keep current.
“I wanted to paint a complete artistic picture,” he noted. “I know we can get onto radio with songs like ‘Sunny and 75’ and ‘Hard to be Cool.’”
Nichols was smart to trust his instincts.
“Sunny and 75” is sitting at number 12 on the Billboard Country Charts and has enjoyed positive response from the critics.
Some of Nichols’ confidence comes from Red Bow Records, his new label and some of it comes from a newly-found peace in his personal life. Four years ago, he and his wife, Heather, made the decision to move to Tyler. They welcomed a daughter to their home last fall.
“My wife’s around her family,” he explained. “They’re extremely supportive.”
Living in East Texas also gives Nichols a better handle on real life.
“I have normal friends in Tyler,” he said. “They don’t really care about the music world. They treat me like anyone else. They don’t have expectations of doing anything but hanging out and doing normal stuff, and to me, that means the world.”
Nichols’ rich baritone has never sounded better. From the first cut, “Let Me Fall In Love With You” to the beautiful ballad, “Better Than Beautiful,” he sails on top of some really great tunes.
It’s obvious he had a lot of fun making this record.
“I went in to the studio with this child-like, the-world-is-wonderful approach,” he said. “And that was directly a result of the new people around me. My record label has given me the confidence. I mean this from the bottom of my soul. More than anything, it’s about being around good people that bring on a calm and confidence so I can relax in the studio and just have fun.”
In addition to being grateful for his new home, daughter and record deal, Nichols appreciates the loyalty his fans showed him during the lean years.
“They kept showing up even though I didn’t have a record out,” he explained. “My fans have been incredible to me. Without being the hot thing of the moment, they still came out to shows and wanted to hear what I had to say.”
Not everyone was so positive. A year ago, some were saying “That guy’s done.” It didn’t look good.
“This kind of turnaround is not a human thing,” he confessed. “I’m not smart enough for that. My stubbornness and ignorance got in the way. But, God said, ‘Watch what I can do.’”
Getting out of Nashville was a saving grace for Nichols.
“I was there so long,” he admitted. “You spend a lot of money trying to keep up with everybody. I like nice things, but they don’t make you feel good for the right reason. They make you feel good because you feel like you kept up for a little while. It’s a never-ending treadmill. It’ not glamourous by any stretch of the imagination.”
One of his early hits, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” is a reflection of the partying lifestyle that ended with a 2007 stint in rehab.
“I’m telling you, God works little miracles in my life every day,” he said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
Nowadays, having friends with real jobs and real worries keep him grounded. And, he’s only a plane ride away from Music City.
“My friends give me an accurate reading of what I’m doing,” he said. “In Nashville, people tell you what you want to hear.”
While acknowledging the need for radio songs for the new record, do not for one minute think Nichols has left his country roots.
Songs like “Billy Graham’s Bible,” “Better Than Beautiful,” “Old Country Song” and a haunting cover of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights” prove Nichols is an artist that can thrive in both worlds.
Nichols grew up singing “Footlights” in his room. It was one of his late father’s favorite songs.
“My fathers was the one who told me this was brilliant,” he said. “It became ingrained in my brain of how the song is supposed to sound.”
“Footlights” gives Nichols a chance to get behind the lyrics and drill deep to convey the meaning of a good tune. The cry and world-weariness in his voice belie the fact that Nichols is only 36.
The country star also acknowledges the George Jones, George Strait and the late Keith Whitley, who died at age 34 in 1989, as an important musical influence.
“I don’t think people realize how unique he [Keith] was,” he explained. “In a world without Pro Tools, you had to sing well. You had to sing well every night. Imagine what he could have done as his voice matured.”
After he’s done with a grueling tour, Nichols will return to the real world, which suits him just fine.
“I never thought I would love Texas as much as I do,” he concluded. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
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