“Maturity” is a funny word to use around Joe Nichols. The country hitmaker is first to admit he lacked it 19 years ago when his breakthrough Man With a Memory album was released, but the “Brokenheartsville” singer has always been praised for his poise, his patience and his dedication to a classic brand of storytelling.
He’s been called an “old soul” and a “crooner” — terms reserved for artists of country music that fans and the industry have deemed beyond their years. Nichols, now 44 years old and set to record an album on a fifth record label imprint, says he was kind of a child in 2002, more prone to do what he wanted than what needed to be done.
“I imagine, for the people I worked with back then, that I was probably pretty tough to work with,” he admits now with some levity during a video call with Taste of Country. Signs of his pandemic habits are apparent: Physically, he’s kept fit with hot pilates, CrossFit and half-marathons. Mentally, he’s relaxed to the point that when he says he’s learned how to be grateful for every day, no matter the situation, you believe it like you believe him when he’s singing one of those neo-traditional country songs.
“The bigger picture is, I think it’s the song that wouldn’t have resonated a year-and-a-half ago, versus right now. I think right now everybody feels like, ‘Let’s get back to something real here.'”
The new song is called “Home Run,” and sonically it’s between his most radio-ready offerings like “Sunny and 75” and the resonant “Never Gets Old,” Nichols’ final single on Red Bow Records. Benny Brown, the head of his old label group, sent him “Home Run” with a package of songs in hopes Nichols would join him on a new record label, Quartz Hills Records. It hit on every level for the country veteran.
“Life’s been coming at me like a fastball / Been in the weeds, be nice to see some corn growing tall / Need to trade some hurry up, for some hey y’all / Oh and I can’t hug my momma through these phone calls,” he sings to open the song. Ashley Gorley, Ross Copperman and Dallas Davidson wrote that several years ago, but it strikes hard today as the world emerges from a pandemic.
“I think those little things are God things,” Nichols says. “I think the timing, all that kind of stuff, that’s a God thing.”
When Nichols recorded Man With a Memory, he aimed to tell a cohesive story. Thus, the album tracks were selected not for strength of song (although he’s proud of all 12 tracks), but for how they filled in missing details. “The Impossible,” “Brokenheartsville,” “She Only Smokes When She Drinks” and “Cool to Be a Fool” were country singles from that project, but others bent toward jazz or bluegrass. A cover of Tom T. Hall’s “Life Don’t Have to Mean Nothin’ at All” stands out as a glue song.
“Not that we don’t have that in mind today,” he says about his story-first approach, “but I think today is more, ‘Let’s find hits’ and then we’ll form the story after the fact.”
Radio airplay and lyrical depth are his priorities now. That’s a sign of how Nichols has changed in this business, but also how this business has changed. With fewer people listening to albums front to back, to tell a story across a dozen songs doesn’t seem as crucial. For a traditionalist, this new reality has to sting, but one only need to refer to his statement about doing what needs to be done verse what he wants to do to understand how he’s accepted it:
“The message now has become so much bigger than it was even then for me,” Nichols says of his new song. “Because here I am, new record deal, something to prove getting back in front of radio and back in front of people on a mass level. That became the meaning of home run.”
For Joe Nichols, business is personal.
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