The tides in music often change once a style’s been popular for awhile, and country artist Joe Nichols sees it as a chance to play something closer to the traditional country that started his career.
“It’s been a long time desire of mine,” Nichols said at a recent tour stop in Buffalo, N.Y., of his new album, which will have a less pop, more traditional country sound. “I’ve always been a traditional guy and really that’s what I’ve always done, but I do think it’s been fun to do some more pop stuff, tempo-wise. There is that other side of it, and it is fun to sing and I’m lucky to be able to do both.ut, my heart is predominately in the traditional sound.”
Nichols will test out some of this new material, along with his 15 years of country hits, during a show on May 26 at the Atlantis. As for the set list, Nichols said the band definitely plays his biggest radio hits but also does a few mashups of his hits into some country classics, including songs by Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard.
“We try to balance it out,” Nichols said of the song choices. “There are a lot of people that aren’t that familiar with everything I’ve done, so we try to sprinkle in some older songs every chance we get.”
Nichols’ band has several members who have been backing him for a long time, including guitarist Brian Spradlin. “Brian’s my best friend and we’ve been in a band for 20 years. We both started together when I was just 19, and we were in a band together without a record deal. And, several other guys in the band have been with me for six or seven years, or almost 10.”
Reaching ‘The Impossible’
Born in Arkansas, it was at age 19 that Nichols was signed to an indie label and his self-titled debut was released in 1996. It was not a hit and a second label deal, this time with a major, came and went without any releases for Nichols.
Fortune turned around in 1999, when Nichols met musician and producer Brent Rowan. Through him, and with Rowan in the producer’s chair, Nichols had a second album, “Man with a Memory,” released by Universal Records in 2002. It was a more immediate hit, as the song “Brokenheartsville” went to No. 1 on the country charts and “The Impossible” made it to No. 3. The album eventually sold a million copies.
Touring as an opening act helped Nichols’ career along, as he continued to have big country hits for the next 10 years. Two of them, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and “Gimmie That Girl,” went to No. 1. Several others were top 10 hits: “If Nobody Believed In You,” “What’s A Guy Gotta Do,” “Size Matters Someday” and “I’ll Wait for You.”
Since 2013, Nichols has been signed to indie label Red Bow Records, and he said they will be releasing his new album this year. “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah” from his first Red Bow album — “Crickets” in 2013 — both reached No. 1.
Now, four years later, the new album is ready to come out in late July. Nichols said that frequent touring and some restarts on the album have led to the uncommonly long delay.
“Well, we’ve definitely been working our tails off to try and finish this record, but the direction of the album has been a moving target,” he said. “We’ve switched gears a couple of times, so it’s taken a little longer so we could cut more songs. We just stopped working on the ones that aren’t that great of a fit for where we are going, so it took a little more time.”
Also taking some time is the modern way that Nashville makes an album these days. Nichols said that he’s joined by a team of decision makers from his own management and the label to discuss every step.
“It’s an ever-changing process,” he said. “There’s a committee with four people, maybe five that would say, ‘I like this song,’ and that would happen for each song. And then sometimes there may be another personal involved in the creative process, or there could be two new people that come in. So, it’s always changing.”
Journey to the past
Caution seems to be a byword in approaching Nichols’ new album. He said that this group of decision makers is still working with him to pick both a first single and an album title.
“We’re still figuring that out and everybody has an opinion on it,” he said. “I think we’re a little scared in a way, that one or all of us could pick something wrong. But, we do have a good working title and we’ll see where it goes from there.
“But one thing I’ve maintained from the beginning of this record is that I want to go more country. My heart needs to be in that place where I started music, for me to remember why I’n here. That’s always been something that I’ve wanted to get back to for a while.”
And now would be an interesting time to do it. Nichols himself cited artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson who have earned critical praises as well as commercial success for going in less of a pop direction.
“I think there are certainly signs of country music embracing tradition again,” he said. “I’m not hearing the words, ‘too country’ as much as I used to (laughs). So, that’s encouraging. I think that radio is willing to play traditional stuff again, and I think country fans are ready to hear more of it.”