As the single continues to climb the charts, the video for “The Shape I’m In” has provided an inspirational message by showcasing two U.S. Army officers who have excelled after making tremendous personal sacrifices while serving our nation.
Nichols recently stopped by the CMT offices to talk about the memories his songs bring up, making the best of what you’ve got and what it’s like to be praised by your hero.
CMT: Merle Haggard recently named you as one of the only artists that was carrying his tradition into the future. How surprising was that to hear?
Nichols: Very surprising. You know, there’s a lot of singers out there that are really great, a lot of the more traditional guys. Brad Paisley is out there. He’s tearing it up. Of course, Alan Jackson’s been, you know, Alan Jackson. But for Merle Haggard to say that about me, I think it’s an incredible compliment. I’ve been such a Merle Haggard fan. Everybody knows it. He’s probably the biggest musical influence on me. So I hope I always continue to have the Merle Haggard element to what I do because he taught me how to sing.
It’s interesting that you say that because I think you and Haggard sound almost exactly the same sometimes.
Yeah, well, whether he knows it or not, I spent many hours alone in my room with a Merle Haggard tape or a CD, just repeating it over and over — trying to mimic his singing and trying to do what he did. So that taught me how to sing.
Did you ever think you’d be doing an interview about your Greatest Hits album?
You know, I always hoped so. I don’t think anyone ever expects to have enough hits to actually have a greatest hits album. I’m very thankful that we do have a good collection of songs here that have become hits for us. I think it’s really cool to look at that album and think about all the stories that are throughout the years — why those songs were released and why those songs were climbing the charts and why we were in studio cutting some of those songs. There are really funny stories along the way, and it actually feels like an entire chapter of my life is coming to a close, so I’m opening a brand new chapter with this next record.
Is each song like a tiny little time capsule? Does it take you right back to that moment?
Each one feels like its own little life to me. It feels like it’s a different snapshot of a certain time of my life. You know [with] “The Impossible,” I was so wide-eyed and just amazed at everything going on around me. While that song came out, I was trying to catch up with a song that was blazing up the chart, and we were trying to play all the radio stations across the country and say thank you for playing it. It was really a wonderful time for me because I was experiencing everything for the first time. It was my introduction to country music as far as being on the radio.
“Brokenheartsville” was the same. It was like I went from this unknown kid with … “The Impossible” to all the sudden “Brokenheartsville,” this honky-tonk anthem. You know, it kind of became everybody’s barroom song immediately, and that was pretty huge. And all the while personally, I’m going through the success stuff, experiencing loss with my father passing away and relationships. Good, bad, ugly. All that stuff. I think about all that stuff when I look at that Greatest Hits and think, “Wow, it’s been one heck of a ride.”
Did things change again when “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” came out?
Yeah, everything became a little more rocking at that point. We’d had some very hardcore country hits, we’d done some ballad stuff. We just hadn’t had that big driving, rocking song. Then “Tequila” came out, and it changed everything. The show got 10 times better and, you know, it almost woke us up, so to speak. It woke me up to, “Oh, OK. We can have a rocking time and have fun and still be traditional country.”
The latest single is “The Shape I’m In,” and the video takes a really inspiring turn. Could you explain what you and the director were going for?
Well, if you listen to the song, the lyric is about a breakup. A guy that’s coming through a breakup and is getting better. He took a beating, and he’s getting better. You know, wiping the fog out of his eyes and moving forward and starting to do fun things again. But with the video, we wanted to take a different turn and make it tie in with the military more. Especially the wounded vets and what they go through, the shape they’re in and how they make the most of a very challenging situation.
Chad Fleming is a guy that lost his leg, and you see him in the video waking up in the morning, rolling over and putting on his leg before he goes for a run. He’s making the most of a very challenging situation. Ivan Castro is the gentleman in there that’s completely blind. It shows him in there getting ready for a date and how he has to go through his day without his sight and overcoming that challenge to go about his regular life. And I think that’s the premise of the video: “I’m doing all right. I’m making the most of what I have.” I think it gives people the motivation and the drive to look at what they have, be thankful for what they have and make the best of it, rather than thinking the worst of it.