On a chilly April day at Los Angeles’ Long Beach Pier, Joe Nichols spent an entire day facing the windy ocean air to film his hit video, “The Impossible.”
“I’m not a boat type of person,” the soft-spoken singer admits. “They took us out to those tugboats among those big oil tankers. That was a little weird. It was like skyscrapers in the water.”
That’s a fitting picture for an up-and-coming country star like Nichols, who appears on CMT Most Wanted Live Saturday (Aug. 2). Amid a few imposing superstars, Nichols and others like him are trying to draw attention to themselves without going under.
The pressure to achieve is especially strong for Nichols, the flagship artist for Universal South, a new label headed by Tony Brown (formerly president of MCA Nashville) and Tim DuBois (formerly president of Arista Nashville). Nichols enlisted one of Nashville’s A-list studio musicians, Brent Rowan, to produce his traditional-leaning, back-to-basics album, Man With a Memory.
“It’s country, man. Old country. Bring it on back,” says Nichols, who is part Cherokee. “I think Nashville’s ripe for a boom.”
The project comes seven years after Nichols was discovered singing along with the radio at a Jiffy Lube in his hometown of Rogers, Ark., by songwriter Randy Edwards. Intersound Records released a self-titled album in 1996, as well as three music videos (“Six of One, Half a Dozen,” “Wal-Mart Parking Lot” and “To Tell You the Truth, I Lied.”).
When Intersound folded, Nichols found himself “dirt-ass poor,” so he reluctantly looked around Nashville for a day job, without trading in his ambition of signing to a major label.
“I had several funny jobs,” Nichols says with a grin. “I was a cable guy. I was a steak salesman, which didn’t work out at all. I moved office furniture. I tended bar a lot. Anything to kill the time without killing the passion for writing music.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa –- a steak salesman?
“Door to door, man. I didn’t sell a single steak. The refrigerator on my truck broke. The air conditioner wasn’t working. It was July. A miserable day. Probably the most miserable day of my life. By the end of the day, man, it was so pitiful that I was walking up to the door shaking my head, like, ‘You don’t even like steak, do you? You don’t even eat meat at this house, do you?’ It was pathetic, I hope I never have to sell another steak.”
The job lasted for one day.
“I wish it would have been shorter, but we tried as hard as we could.”
It can be forgiven that the kid couldn’t sell steak, but he sure can sell a beer, judging from the numerous drinking songs on Man With a Memory.
“I’ve always sung songs about drinking and having fun and having a good time,” he explains. “Everybody still drinks. I don’t know what everybody’s hiding from, or what the problem is. I’m not talking about being a lush in life, or anything like that. But people still go out and have a drink and have fun, and there’s really no harm in it, as long as a person is responsible. And people still want to hear a song about that. That’s why people sing those ‘70s standards like ‘You Never Even Call Me by My Name’ or ‘Family Tradition,’ because they haven’t heard good ones since then.”
His father, Mike, died July 16 after a long illness. Despite the sadness, Nichols kept his word to appear July 20 on the Grand Ole Opry to sing “The Impossible.” The ballad, currently at No. 11 on Billboard’s country singles chart, starts with the lyrics, “My dad chased monsters from the dark.”
Following his Opry performance, Nichols mentioned to the crowd that his father had passed away and offered a quiet version of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” which is Nichols’ favorite song – and his father’s. Toward the end of the performance, a picture of Joe and Mike appeared on the giant screen in the Opry backdrop. “That’s to the old man,” he said before thanking the Grand Ole Opry and humbly walking off stage.
Recalling that emotional night in the spotlight, Nichols says, “The less and less I thought about what I was doing and what I was going through, the less emotional I was. But even then, it was pretty tough. I thought about what the old man would say, and how he would act. He’d say, ‘Go up there and do what you do. Don’t worry about all the small stuff. Go out there and sing those songs.’”
That’s the plan. In addition to sporadic solo dates coming up around the country, Nichols will tour briefly with Alan Jackson in September. In the meantime, the 25-year-old spends Saturday nights on the Opry stage whenever he can.
“I’ve been on there nine times,” he says with some amazement. “That’s a huge compliment. That’s the church of country music, and when you’re invited by the church, why turn down an opportunity to do something that special? Especially when they invite you back. There’s no way I’m going to turn down a weekend gig there, if it’s possible.”