Don’t count on having lunch with Joe Nichols any time soon. He’s pretty busy. First, there’s a full schedule of shows at casinos and county fairs around the country. Then, between dates, he’ll be out promoting his new album, Revelation, which went on sale Tuesday (June 29). The latter involves stops at such high-profile venues as Good Morning America, The View and CNN. It’s shaping up to be a real marathon.
One thing Nichols won’t have to sweat, though, is defending the quality of his second effort for Universal South Records. The album is solid, uncompromising country. Revelation has nine serious songs (a couple of which will have folks weeping in their lager) and two funny ones that are as true to the male psyche as an affinity for centerfolds.
The album takes its title from a Bobby Braddock song Waylon Jennings recorded for his 1972 package, Ladies Love Outlaws. “It was brought to me by Mike Owens, the head of A&R at Universal South,” Nichols explains in a phone call from the Chippewa Valley Country Festival in Cadott, Wis. “It was the first time I’d heard it. … I couldn’t believe that anyone hadn’t recut it since then. Of course, Waylon did a heck of a job on it. It kind of punched me in the gut.” The dark, apocalyptic moan alludes to the Vietnam War then in progress. Nichols says he elected to record it with the original reference, even though he could have cut an updated version that substituted a more current trouble spot, the Middle East.
But Nichols was less meticulous in sidestepping politics in “If Nobody Believed in You,” the album’s lead single. While its first two verses deal with the emotional harm insensitive people cause others, the third takes a swipe at those who try to keep religion out of public schools. “I believe that people have to have a belief in something,” the 27-year-old singer argues, “whether it be God or whatever their religion. … I think people get into a political war over simple words, and they miss the forest for the trees. … The premise of the song is that we all need to believe in something — in each other and, especially, God. It’s just our opinion. We didn’t mean to get too political or anything like that or make a podium out of the song. Some people aren’t going to agree with us, but that’s OK, too.”
Nichols pays tribute to the late Keith Whitley in “I Wish That Wasn’t All,” a reflection about the good things in life that “leave you wantin’ more.” He’s been a Whitley fan since he was a kid. “My dad was a big fan of his, too,” Nichols says. “My dad was a truck driver, and we’d spend a few weeks out on the road away from home. I remember we wore the Keith Whitley tapes out.”
Bowing to requests from his own fans, Nichols includes his cover of Gene Watson’s 1979 hit, “Farewell Party,” on the new album. It’s a song he routinely performs in his shows. He doesn’t know if Watson has ever heard him sing it but notes, “It would sure be cool to let him hear it and get his approval on it.”
“Don’t Ruin It for the Rest of Us” is the retort every loser-in-love would like to make to those who bubble with romantic bliss. “My manager, John Lytle, played that one for me,” Nichols reports. “It’s kind of like ‘Brokenheartsville, Chapter 2.’ Any song with drinking in it and a line that says, ‘keep your pie hole shut’ is pretty classic right there.”
The song that’s likely to incite women to rush the stage is “What’s a Guy Gotta Do.” Nichols co-wrote the sad-sack lament with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson. He hasn’t sung it in concert yet, but with a come-on like “What’s a guy gotta do to get a girl in this town,” the result is a foregone conclusion.
“We just started talking about goofy things,” Nichols says in explaining how the song came about, “like [the fact that] the towns that we’re all from happen to be pretty rural [and] guys are always looking for something to do or something to get into.”
Only months after Nichols made his breakthrough with “The Impossible,” he landed a prized opening slot on an Alan Jackson tour. “I used to joke about it,” he says, “that we had eight minutes worth of hits [to sing].” He’s built up the minutes since then via such chart fixtures as “Brokenheartsville,” “She Only Smokes When She Drinks” and “Cool to Be a Fool.” These successes have made Nichols more confident on stage and allowed his abundant charm to show through.
Although he still speaks as modestly as a newcomer, he will admit, if pressed, that he’s become something of a celebrity. “If we’re in an airport or something like that,” he concedes, “about eight times out of 10 we’ll probably sign a few autographs. It feels great.” Nowadays he travels with a troupe of 13, including a seven-piece band. He says he’s worked about half the songs from the new album into his show, specifically “Don’t Ruin It for the Rest of Us,” “If I Ever Get Her Back,” “If Nobody Believed in You,” “Farewell Party” and “No Time to Cry” (an Iris DeMent gem that Merle Haggard recorded).
Nichols agile voice and exotic good looks have won him appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and even attracted a couple of movie scripts. While noting that he’s not had an offer, he says it would be “a huge honor” to some day join the Opry. As to movies, he says, “I think everybody [around me] is pretty much of the same opinion: that we’re still trying to get control of this music thing. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re on any kind of cruise control.”
Once this happens, he says, he might be open to doing films. “If the right opportunities came about, I’d love to see what we could do in Hollywood. That would be fun to tell the grandkids about one day.”