Joe Nichols wants the focus back on his music. After a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse problems, the handsome country traditionalist is back on the road -- seemingly happier and healthier than ever. Nichols' sixth studio album, 'Real Things,' has already spawned two Top 20 hits, including the infectiously fun 'It Ain't No Crime.' He's newly married to the woman he calls his "best friend," and he's filling his summer calendar with tour dates.

Yes, Nichols has undoubtedly turned over a new leaf, but he doesn't shy away from discussing old demons in this chat with The Boot. We also get his candid opinion on pop stars who invade country radio and other things that really bug him about the business.

Fans are loving 'It Ain't No Crime'!

It's a fun song to sing. A lot of people dig what I'm saying in the song, lyric wise. It's a song about slacking off, you know? [laughs] It kind of brings out the lazy in people, and I'm glad to do that.

Is it important to you to mix up the traditional ballads with the fun stuff on all of your albums?

Yeah, I mean let's face it -- this business is about pleasing the audience. I think every artist would love to just please themselves musically all day long. Sometimes you have to listen to other people, and see what the audiences want. That's what entertaining is about. Being a singer can pretty much be done by anybody. Being an entertainer includes knowing how to connect with an audience. People want to hear some fun stuff now and then -- they don't want to feel sorrow all the time. People love to laugh, they love silly stuff, they love to hear that everybody else has the same weird funny situations as themselves. That's what I tried to do with songs like 'Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off' or 'Let's Get Drunk and Fight.'

Given your recent stint in rehab, is it safe to say that 'My Whiskey Years' is the most personal song on 'Real Things'?

Yeah, I think it's one of the most personal songs of my career. It's one of those songs that I know helps me. It's great therapy, and it's great to have a song like this acknowledge the pain that sometimes a person can go through. That's what makes that song unique, is that it may not be for everybody, but for some people it's everything.

You were very quick to release a statement about tackling your problems with alcohol. What made you decide to share your pain?

Man, that's kind of a difficult question. I've burned some bridges in my lifetime, some in my career. I think it was a matter of showing people I was doing something about it, that I was being proactive and making things healthy again. Not necessarily just the public, but my friends, fans, family and music family. It's important to me that they all know I'm making a change for the better.

You've said that you were afraid that going to rehab would end your career or possibly end your marriage. Tell us about the moment you realized that you were wrong.

When my wife flew to Arizona to be with me for the last couple of weeks. It was incredible -- a great display of selflessness. She didn't have to do that, but she decided to get in the trench with me and make everything better. As far as my career goes, with this single ['It Ain't No Crime'] doing as well as it has, it makes me feel like, regardless of the turmoil, there are people still out there who dig what I do and believe in me.

How would you say that rehab has strengthened your career?

I don't know about the career, but I know that rehab strengthened me. It got my head on straight. I got to thinking clearer. [It's] easier to make wise decisions and do what I love without a huge burden on my shoulders.

During one of your first post-rehab radio interviews, you busted into Amy Winehouse's 'Rehab,' which got big laughs. Is it important for you to keep a good sense of humor?

I think the most important thing is to not let it be "the" topic. It's certainly right there in the room with us. It's apparent that it happened and it's not pretty. But hey, what is? My attitude is, I'm not going to let that be a statement in my life. I'm not going to let rehab define me. I think the way to do that is to just make it easier to laugh about it and say, 'Yeah, I probably won't do that again. Look what it did for me,' in a funny kind of way. Not to make light of it, not to make it seem less meaningful, but not to make it define me. Let it be what it was, and let's move on.

You met your wife when you were 18, so what took you so long?!

Well she grew up a lot faster than I did. She's a very smart person with a lot of ambition, goals and a lot of intelligence. For me to catch up with all that, it took a while. But I eventually did, and she's been a great friend to me for a long time. And it is great to be able to say I am married to my best friend.

What's the best part about being a newlywed?

Well there are a lot of obvious answers to that. [laughs] But I think doing things together for the first time, that's a fun feeling right there. As newlyweds, going places or creating new good habits . . . exploring the world together for the first time -- it's really cool.

Is it true that your 9-year-old daughter, Ashelyn, already knows she wants to go to Harvard?

[Laughs] Yeah that's exactly right. She knows she has to be at the top of her game in school from here throughout high school to even be in the running for that. But to have that be the goal of a child is awesome. I love that! That's what we need nowadays, is more children that have goals other than being a sports figure or some kind of celebrity. I think it's great that a kid wants to learn more and wants to be at the peak of learning, especially at that young.

If you had to predict her career path, what would you say she's probably going to do for a living?

I think she'll be a rocket scientist / lawyer / doctor / marine biologist / veterinarian / great outstanding human being. [laughs]

In your own career path, you've always stuck to a traditional sound. What's your opinion on acts who change their sound to crossover to pop?

I think country's fan base wants country. If they wanted pop, they'd listen to pop. I'm not saying you can't be a pop-sounding artist on country radio, I don't have any problem with that. But for a rock singer to try country because it's a bigger audience, I think it cheapens what we do in country. It makes it "where good rock stars go to die." I think that people with country roots who have a country thing about them, that's what people love. That's what country music needs. But when you have people who have no country roots at all and don't care to know anything about country roots, but have been dipping into the country format because there are buyers there and they can attract them with pop music -- is your music not great enough to do that in pop? You're taking away four minutes of what people could learn about another country artist that's not getting the shot because you're a rock guy wanting to get into the country world. It just cheapens the format and makes it blend into the pop world, which is great for sales and growth of country music, but also makes that line there very blurry. It's a dangerous game-- there could be a lot of great careers killed that way.

Are there any new country artists who you think have a real shot at longevity by keeping it traditional?

The obvious answer is Josh Turner. He's a great example of a guy who sells records with a great country voice and sound. I think Carrie Underwood has got a very country heart, loves country music. She chose country music after winning 'American Idol,' which is a perfect opportunity to be a huge pop star. She's got a pop-driven sound sometimes, but I think her heart is with Nashville. She's one of those who has that crossover ability to bring pop listeners to country, rather than country listeners to pop.

If you could change anything about the country music industry what would you change?

It's so hard to answer that question without making somebody mad. I would change the difficulty level of breaking a new artist. The way the charts are formatted, it takes something really out of the ordinary to break through that superstar barrier. You have the George Straits, Alan Jacksons, Carrie Underwoods, Keith Urbans, Kenny Chesneys, Rascal Flatts -- those guys are guaranteed a Top Ten spot every time out. If I were changing things, I would make those records be spectacular before I just give them an automatic Top Ten spot. I think great careers are built on great songs and proving yourself every single, not just proving yourself for the first five or six and then putting it on cruise control because you're automatically guaranteed the top spot. It would give validity to the music.The more you value the song and the music, rather than whose name is on it, I think we'd be in a better place.

You have tons of tour dates this summer. What's the best part of being back on the road?

Trying new things, playing new stuff within a week of learning a song. Or putting together a song and then go out and play it for ten nights and it totally bombs, and you're like, 'Well that didn't work, we won't do that anymore!' But also there's the other side of that, where you plug a new song into the set and you've got a gem. We've been playing some new stuff that we're thinking about for the next album, and either it's going to work great or it's going to work terribly, but at least we'll have an idea. And I think that's great about going out in the summertime and playing, because you get a fan's immediate gut reaction on what's going to be great for the next album.

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