Joe Nichols Finds Life Is ‘All Good’ These Days
Joe Nichols has definitely had his share of ups and downs over the last decade, from being named the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist and garnering three Grammy nominations to losing his father and coming to terms with an addiction problem during a stint in rehab a few years back. Along the way, the singer has also racked up his share of memorable country hits, from ‘Brokenheartsville‘ to ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,’ gaining the seal of approval from a sea of fans and fellow country stars alike, including the legendary Merle Haggard. Joe also married his longtime sweetheart, Heather Singleton, finding a new lease on life and making his way back into the light after some dark and lonely years.
Joe’s new album, ‘It’s All Good,’ is a mantra of sorts for the Arkansas native these days, who now makes his home in the Lone Star State, far from the pressures and stress of the music business. The Boot caught up with Joe to chat about the upbeat vibe of his latest project, the challenges of remaining traditional in a pop-country world, and how a shy boy from Arkansas became one of the torch-bearers for that rich, retro-country sound that still blends in quite nicely on today’s eclectic country radio dial.
You’re a traditional artist, but when country swings more pop, is it hard to find that balance between keeping things current and fresh and still creating that old school, throwback sound you’re known for?
It doesn’t really matter to me what the rest of country is doing. I’m not caught up in trying to make a record that sounds like everybody else. That, to me, is a record label’s absolute biggest downfall. The people who are competing business-wise out there want what other successful labels and artists have. I don’t want what they have; I want my own path, my own sound, my own identity. Record labels care nothing about identity or artistic freedom, they want good business. [laughs]
Your last album was a Greatest Hits project. Coming off of that, did you do some reminiscing before you went in to make this new CD?
I do like to sometimes go back to the first and second records and remember the magic we had on them. Those are always the benchmarks of good music we’ve made. Before we go in, I like to listen to ‘Man With A Memory‘ and ‘Revelation‘ and refresh my mind that this is the kind of place I want to be in. The vocals on both those records were really, really tough to get, but we took a lot of time on them and waited until they were right. That approach was pretty similar with this record.
They say albums are snapshots of where an artist is in his/her life at the time. Is it tough for you to go back and listen to some of those CDs now, being that they were made during painful periods in your life?
No, I still like ‘em! It’s a little tough to listen sometimes when I think about where I was at for a couple of those records, just because I knew the pain that was going on in my life and I could hear in my voice what was happening to me. And that’s a little tough to do sometimes. But there are a lot of great songs and special moments on those albums even though they were painful times and crying moments.
‘It’s All Good’ has a much more uplifting feel to it than any other album in your catalog. Is it safe to assume that reflects your personal life?
Somewhat. I’m certainly in a much better spot than I’ve ever been health-wise, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and what you hear on the record is due to me sticking with it. I want to work at it, harder than I ever have before now, instead of just doing what comes naturally and mailing it in.
Why are you working harder now more than ever?
The way that I am now, I don’t want to accept mediocrity. I don’t want to accept the easy road. And before, I certainly didn’t want to accept mediocrity, but I didn’t want to let it get in the way of my drama. I still fight with that today — the people pleasing thing. You have to pick your battles. I’ve certainly had to bite my tongue on occasion and live to fight another day, so to speak, on certain things. But when you’re new and fresh, you come out and think, ‘I don’t want to screw my chance up, so I’ll go along with what everybody else does.’ So in that process of what everybody else says, sometimes you can lose your identity, and then it’s a downward spiral from there. I’ve certainly battled with that in my career. But this record is a change of pace in a different direction … it’s a record that’s very me. And I know I’m not appealing to everybody. I’m not one of these guys who’s a rock/pop/country crossover hit guy, and I accept that. I’m a country guy. I love being a country guy. I’m fine with that. I’m proud of that.
This record doesn’t sound like a whole lot of things out there. I know in most cases that would be a bad thing, but in this case I think it’s a good thing. This record is gonna stand out a little bit. It’s a traditional country record, and it’s probably not the commercially crossover genius that some records are, but you’re into traditional, this is the one. The more the industry does something that’s different than what I do, the better it helps me. I know that sounds backwards, and a lot of people who have offices in Nashville who look at dollars and cents disagree with me, but the more we set ourselves apart and offer something different and unique, the better we are in the long run.
Your single ‘Take It Off‘ is so clever. What drew you to that song?
It was the suggestive title. I’m a fan of suggestive titles — I think it’s the first thing people catch. As a friend of mine told me one time, it’s always good to have a bumper sticker. So I think the hook-line “take it off” sounds inviting, sounds a little bad, a little wrong. [laughs] That was the first thing that drew me to it, and the song just feels fun. It’s a summer song that reminds me of going out to the river and having a good time, cutting loose and not caring about anything.
Watch Joe’s ‘Take It Off’ Video
You always have a rough job of being surrounded by a bevy of gorgeous girls in your videos! Is it still fun making videos after all these years?
Absolutely! There was one video that was the easiest video ever done and I loved it — that was ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,’ and that day was just so much fun! We just had a great big party at this mansion. ‘Take It Off’ was fun, with a lot of pretty girls around. We had a little pool party, and it was hot that day. But anytime I start thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to be here, this sucks, making a video is awful,” then I start thinking about the stuff I did to make a living before I was on the radio. And I remember I don’t have it so bad, I think I’ll stop griping!
‘No Truck, No Boat, No Girl’ – that’s another funny one on the album. Have you ever been that guy?
I’ve only owned a boat once, but the concept of losing the girl and the truck and everything else you care about in one day — yep, that’s happened to me before! [laughs] But yeah, it’s a fun song. My wife hates that song, but I love it! She’s more into love songs, and she’s not into that kind of ‘Aw, crap, I did it again: I lost my girl and my truck,’ and that old cliché, country kind of stuff. She just thinks that’s depressing, but I think it’s funny!
You had Alison Krauss come in to sing on ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ — that had to be a highlight of your studio time.
There are so many things I love about that song. Having Alison and Dan Tyminski come in to sing on that song was huge for me. It instantly changed the song from just being a good- sounding song to instant credibility, as far as the production went. They sang great harmonies, and just having their voices on it added that little bit of flavor that made it special. It went from good to outstanding. But the thing that got to me most is how simple and retro-sounding it is, like those old Keith Whitley records: a little understated. The song just came together really great, and I’m proud that Alison and Dan sang on it with me. I’m a huge fan — she’s one of the best singers country music has ever seen.
‘She’s Just Like That’ is a favorite of your wife’s, right? Is it sort of in that same mentality as your hit, ‘Gimme That Girl‘?
It’s very close to ‘Gimme That Girl’ … It’s a very sweet song and a very real description of a girl like Heather. She’s everything you’d imagine a woman to be: very sweet, very kind, very sensitive, very loving and very devoted … and at the same time, she will whoop you in a second!
Are there any songwriters on this album you’ve worked with in the past?
“Yeah, the Peach Pickers (Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson) have a couple on this album. And Rivers Rutherford has a song on there I absolutely love, ‘How I Wanna Go.’ It’s a great song. It’s really special to me because of Heather, my wife, and because of what my life is like now. There was a time that I was fairly certain that I would go out of this world guns ablazing, and probably way too soon. It was just how I lived, and how I didn’t care. And rightfully so. Anyone who knew me back then could tell you this wasn’t going to end well. So when Heather came along, everything started changing for me and I got my life back on track. I started thinking a different way … more for the future and for how I want to be here in my 80′s. I would love to grow old and experience life the way it should be experienced. That’s why it’s special to me.
Do you ever think about what life would’ve been like if you hadn’t met your wife?
I’d probably be dead right now. I love being able to come home and talk to my best friend every day. I love the time I get to spend with her. I do not miss the dating stuff at all. Of course, the hard stuff is keeping up with relationships and making sure you’re doing your part. It’s easy to get lazy and not do your part.
You recently moved to Texas to be near your wife’s family. Was that a hard transition?
It’s been great! I love it down here. I think Texas is a great place for me to be. I love the way of life down here, I love the speed of life. Everything runs about my pace — life is slow, low drama, and I don’t have to worry about running into such and such or keeping up with the Joneses, or anything like that. I move at my own pace and I do what I want to do here.
Has being away from Nashville helped you creatively?
Being away from Nashville did a couple of things for me. One is it takes me out of the constant machine. The constant machine only feeds the machine — there’s no jumping into the machine and changing how it operates. You do it the way it’s done, or you get out. Being in Texas, I don’t have to do everything that way. I don’t have to drive a certain kind of car, or wear certain clothes, or sing a certain song, or go to a certain event. I don’t have to do all these things to keep up what I want people to think about me. Here’s what I am: I’m a country singer. I like singing country music, and I go out and do my shows, and I have a lot of fun. I like to interact with the fans. Now the crap that becomes the business part, that’s where things get confusing, and I think that’s where Texas helps me. I don’t have to do that. I’m still part of the industry, but I can do it from afar and I now have all the freedom in the world to get in and get out whenever I want to.