Joe Nichols: Tradition never gets old

Andrew Kruse-Ross

andrew kruse-ross | joe nichols | may 2019

Joe Nichols headlines Celebrate De Pere on May 25.With four Grammy Award nominations and awards from the Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association and Country Music Television under his belt, Joe Nichols needs little introduction.

Over his career, Nichols has had six No. 1 hits and eight Top 10 singles to his credit and he's managed to do so while staying true to his traditional country roots.

Nichols makes a return visit to northeastern Wisconsin as the national headliner for Celebrate De Pere on Saturday, May 25 at the Brown County Fairgrounds.

Taking some time away from a busy schedule, Nichols was kind enough to field some questions via telephone from his home in Tyler, Texas.

Starting with some fresh news, the 'Never Gets Old: Traditional Country Series' EP is now available in its entirety. How was it dipping into some of your influences and wrapping up that series?

Man, first of all, I've always wanted to do a compilation of some of my favorite songs by some of my favorite singers and just never had the ability or the direction to get that done. So, having the studio flexibility with this last record and a little bit of time and of course the tie-in with the title, 'Never Get's Old,' I thought it was a great opportunity to cut some covers and see what happens.

It actually started when my wife and I were celebrating our 10-year anniversary — 10 or 11 — and for an anniversary present, I went in the studio with my bandleader and did a simple production on a couple of our favorite songs from our teenage years and our childhood. We love Don Williams and there's a Charley Pride song that I always used to sing to her when I was 19 called 'The Rose Is for Today' and so as a gift, I gave her this little three-song CD as like a 'Hey, remember when?' She thought it was a great gift and I gave a copy of that to my manager and he said, 'Man, we can turn this into a project.' So it went on from there; we chose a few more songs by a few more singers and added Keith Whitley and some George Jones in there and decided to make a little series out of it. It went incredibly well; people were really responsive to it.

Was it difficult selecting only six songs to cover or did you know exactly where you were heading with the covers?

Very difficult and I didn't want it to end either, I wanted to keep on going. There's so many influences. I have Merle with 'Sing Me Back Home' and Keith Whitley did 'Ten Feet Away' and George Jones did 'Choices' and I already mentioned Charley Pride and Don Williams, I did a couple of his. I could have gone on and on with Randy Travis and Ronnie Milsap — I did a Ronnie Milsap song.

If I'd of gotten my way, I'd still be doing one every month.

Going back to the original full-length version of 'Never Get's Old.' Before releasing that album you took somewhat of a longer break than usual in between recordings. You're known as a traditionalist; does it feel like the break allowed the music industry to kind of catch up to your style a bit or did you have some soul searching to do of your own?

I think a lot of factors played into how long it took to go between albums. Availability was one factor, you know, touring really heavily. But I think the benefit, like you mentioned, was that radio and the fan base with country music are becoming every day more and more open to traditional country music — giving guys like me more of a place and it's only growing and it has been for the last several years. So, I'm excited about where we're going and hopefully, I have a place in there.

Yeah, I think a lot of factors, logistics being one but also, like you said, the acceptance of the kind of music that I do is also a big key factor in that.

That's much to the rejoicing of fiddle players everywhere, I'm sure.

Yeah (laughs)! Steel Guitar Players Union is very happy.

Has it been difficult to stay the course of traditional country when so many others are heading in other directions? Have you felt pressure to do the same?

At times, I mean there's obviously a question of 'Will this fit on radio today or not?' when you're in the studio or releasing a single. I think it's certainly a part of the decision but I don't think it outweighs whether the music is right.

One thing that I always try to do is make sure whatever music I do makes you feel something. It's got to do something to make you feel; it can't just be wallpaper. You know, here we are fighting with 100 other artists for that little sliver of radio that may be wallpaper. In my opinion, for me to be on the radio is not so much about whether I fit, it's about whether or not I stand out and do something that makes people feel something.

You've got quite the catalog to pull from to put together a set list, can you tell us a bit about the songs you're currently performing and what we can expect when you come to town over Memorial Day weekend?

Well, we play most of the singles we've had on the radio. I've been very fortunate over the years. I don't know the particular stats, but we've had a lot of songs that got heavily played. We'll play anywhere from 'Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off' to 'Sunny and 75,' 'Brokenheartsville' into some of those Top 15: 'It Ain't No Crime,' 'Take It Off' and 'Hard to Be Cool.' Like I said, I'm fortunate that I have a pretty significant catalog to choose from but I really like to focus sometimes on the show on my influences and some off-the-wall, curveball covers. I love to play in the show that old Jones' song “If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will).” Sometimes I'll break out some Ronnie Milsap or a Brooks and Dunn song even. I like to change it up somewhat every night.

Hey, you mentioned the quirky covers. This is mandatory questioning at this point to put you to sleep but are you still doing the Sir Mix-A-Lot thing on the stage, is that still surviving?

Yeah, it's a funny little two-minute, here's-something-funny-for-ya part of the show. To begin with, I think the idea to do it in the show was just kind of to throw something off-the-wall like, 'I bet they didn't see this coming!' It's kind of blossomed into, 'Hey, maybe we should throw that on the record' and then it blossomed into, 'Hey, maybe we should make a video with Sir Mix-A-Lot.' And it became a thing and of course the video we made got something like eight or 10 millions views or something crazy, so we put it in the show and it's still that little oddball moment.

I'd like to ask you a bit about perseverance. You were quite young when you signed both your initial and second record deal and then you found yourself taking on regular jobs for a while. That would have been pretty depressing for many and yet, you come back stronger than ever with 'Man with a Memory,' can you speak a little bit about how you handled that time?

To give you kind of an idea, when I was 19 I got that first independent record deal with Intersound Records and the company was basically two guys … I did that independent thing and it worked for what it was. As much as they could do for me they did. I think we had one song that broke the Top 40 or 50 or something, so the record label was only going to take me so far.

I was still living in Arkansas at the time and it kind of gave me the itch to go to Nashville and get on a major label and do even more music. And like you said, between that independent record and my first album released in 2002, there were a lot of interesting jobs and I did have some depressing times. For instance, one job I did I only lasted one day. I was door-to-door steak salesman and I was terrible at it. It was awful. I know people probably have experiences with these guys. It was basically, walk up, tell some lies and see if they'll buy some stuff (laughs). I was not good at that.

But I loaded trucks for UPS, I was a cable guy. It's funny but when I was a cable guy, I was working on a house in Nashville and I'm on the floor and I'm drilling a hole in this lady's floor and she taps me on the shoulder and she says, 'Aren't you Joe Nichols?' I was like, 'Ah, it's great that you remember me but it's very humbling that I'm in this setting. You'd of thought things would of worked out better.'

But the whole time I was honing my craft, I was getting a lot better at writing, I was singing a lot more, I was learning Nashville a lot more. By the time I had my major label debut in 2002, after having spent a year or two on Giant Records and Warner Brothers Records and never having an album released on those labels, it just gave me the kind of time I needed into being ready for a major label debut, and that was 'Man with a Memory' and by then, I'd played hundreds of shows and learned how to acoustically play for a crowd and with a band, play for a crowd and honestly, how to make a record.

Joe, we mentioned the Traditional Country EP, is there anything you're working on for the near future you could tell us about?

Yeah, I'm actually in pre-production for my next album. You know I left Red Bow this last year and so I'm back in the studio much like I did with my 'Crickets' album. I started that album with my own money, my own production ideas and that's the same way I'm starting this project with my own money, my own ideas and my own writing. I've got an A & R person that I'm working with that's finding me songs that are hits and so, I'm building an album and then the music will determine where I go from here.

I want to make something great on my own dime so that when I hand it into a record label or someone I can have all the confidence I need to go in and say, 'Hey, here's something I'm proud of, I hope you are too. Let's put it to radio.'

Is there anything we haven't mentioned that you'd like us to?

I should probably mention how much I love Wisconsin. Especially, this is Green Bay, right? It happens to be one of my favorites. I was fortunate enough to catch a couple of football games there and the atmosphere at those games — even as cold as it is — one time I did the anthem there and it was like minus 12 and the wind chill was crazy cold but I still had one of the best times of any sporting event I've ever been to at that place. One of the best places, I'd go there any time.

Catch Joe Nichols on May 25 headlining Celebrate De Pere.

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