Country Singer Joe Nichols Reflects on the Ebb and Flow of His 20-year career

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Singer Joe Nichols received a good dose of country music while growing up in Arkansas.

“My dad played country music and I went to some of the places he played as a kid,” he says via phone from his Nashville home. Nichols performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 11, at the Goodyear Theatre in Akron.

“I knew how much it meant to him because he seemed to always be playing music," Nichols continues. "I started listening so much that I could tell what I liked and didn’t like. I listened to what he liked. That kind of got passed down to me a little bit – the music of Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard and Noble Ray Price.”

Initially, Nichols debuted for a rock band. He didn’t wind up in the band, but it turned out to be a learning experience.

“I was in a rock band for like ten minutes,” he says. “This was back in 1993, maybe. I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. These guys were seniors in high school and had the coolest rock band. The singer had just moved away and they were hoping for a singer. People told them I was a singer, even though I was a little twangy. I was introduced to the band. We did a band rehearsal, but I can’t sound any way other than country. The drummer was the band leader. He said, “I don’t think it’s going to work out, man. You might be a little too George Strait for us.”

Nichols moved to Nashville and released his first album in 1996. Though the record label that released it would drop him on account of the disc’s poor performance, the album did give Nichols a glimpse of what could be.

“When I moved to Nashville, I knew it wouldn’t be as simple as walking into a label and getting signed,” he says. “I had a lot of maturing to do. For about five years [after getting dropped], I had weird jobs. I delivered furniture. I unloaded trucks. I sold steaks door to door for one day. Meanwhile, I was trying to play every night and practice and sing every day and be better. I wanted to know myself. What do I want to sound like? What am I good at?”

He says that thinking long and hard about his sound helped him get his deal with Giant Records. When Warner Bros. absorbed Giant Records (and Nichols along with it), label execs wanted Nichols to be “more poppy.” He didn’t agree with their strategy and amicably split from the label. He quickly landed on Universal South and relaunched his career with 2002’s Man with a Memory.

“At that point, I had matured enough to start the process and start making a record,” Nichols says. “[Session guitarist] Brent Rowan was huge for me. He let me mature. We went through hills and valleys together. A lot of things then happened in a very explosive way.”

Throughout the 2000s, Nichols delivered hit after hit. In all, he’s had six No. 1 hits and eight Top 10 singles over the course of his career. But for Nichols, who had well-publicized personal problems during the era in which he became a bonafide star, all wasn't rosy.

“From the time to when I moved to Nashville and to the time I got the deal, there was a lot of growing,” he says. “I stopped negative thinking and started being me. Going into the early 2000s, I had a No. 1 song, which was a big confidence booster. People were looking to me as a sign that country music was coming back their way. When ‘Brokenheartsville’ came out, it was through the roof. We had a couple of more hits. The next album, Revelation, also did great. Throughout all this time, my mind was saying, ‘Hell, yes. This is great. This is amazing.’ I think my maturity had stopped at 22 or 23. I had success come my way, and I still treated it if I was a teenager. I had too much fun. I was a little too pampered. It’s a blessing for me, and I didn’t appreciate it enough.”

As his deal with Show Dog/Universal expired, he says he had to “reorient” himself and start “working hungry again.” That attitude comes across on his latest effort, 2013’s Crickets.

“I have had to do that three or four times,” he says. “You’d think I’d learn by now. That’s the key. When you’re humble and hungry you want to practice and make yourself better and find out what your connection with people is and what they like about you and what you want to play. If you figure those things out and do that on a daily basis, things work out.”

He says he went into the studio the day after his Show Dog/Universal South contract expired, to start work on Crickets.

The album shows off his terrific baritone voice, and one highlight, “Gotta Love It,” features a spirited horn section.

“I wanted something with that feel to it,” says Nichols when asked about "Gotta Love It." “There are some country songs you wouldn’t believe had horns until you thought about them. Certain songs have that ragtime and Dixieland feel to them. I thought it would be cool to have a little bit of a horn section to see what it would sound like.”

Nichols says the Merle Haggard tune “Footlights,” another highlight, for a Haggard tribute album but decided to put it on his album instead.

“I’ve always been partial to that song,” says Nichols. “It’s my favorite Merle song and it was my father’s favorite Merle song. The Crickets album and the tribute album were being made at the same time. I asked the label owner and he let me have it for my album.”

Nichols says he’s started work on a new studio effort but the songs have “changed direction” a couple of times.

“I want to do what I do best and where I connect best,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve gotten countrier. Even [the song] ‘Yeah’ is countrier. It’s really progressive for me but has some element of country with the lower timbre voice. Our mindset has been that we want to put out an album that’s congruent with the message. The message is traditional country. This is what I want to do moving forward. The next single will be traditional country.”

Joe Nichols, Joe Hall, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 11, Goodyear Theater, 1201 E. Market St., Akron, 330-690-2307.Tickets: $35, goodyeartheater.com.

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