On the whole, the album will satisfy longtime fans of the Arkansas native, who has stayed true to his traditional country roots since his 2002 album, Man With a Memory.
Although he now lives in Texas, Nichols traveled to Nashville in November to chat about making sure he didn’t settle for less, meeting his musical heroes and mingling with his fans.
CMT: This album has a relaxed and natural feel. Is that a reflection of your life these days?
Nichols: I think so. Going into this album, I think it was important to say when something was not good enough. That’s the hardest thing we have to tell ourselves in Nashville. Sometimes we overlook the ability to say no. And I don’t mean saying no just for the sake of saying no to something — I mean, something less than you can give. We didn’t settle for anything until it was good enough.
I immediately liked “Somebody’s Mama” on the album. Why did that resonate with you?
Somebody put it best earlier today when they said it’s a very common theme. The subject of “Somebody’s Mama” has been written about — a guy who wonders what could have been with the girl he fell in love with a long time ago. It’s been written a hundred times. The thing about this time is that it’s written in a unique way. A brand new way. That’s the mark of a true brilliant songwriter who can take an old idea and make it like you’ve never heard it before.
What is your mom like? What kind of personality does she have?
My mom? (laughs) She’s a great mother. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen On Golden Pond. I’ve told her this on several occasions but she reminds me of Norman. (laughs) It’s really weird but she reminds me of Henry Fonda’s character from On Golden Pond. That old, set-in-her-ways, country person. She doesn’t take a whole lot of guff from anybody.
Do you see that in yourself as you get older?
As I get older, I become a little more set in my ways. Then again, I love to try new stuff and experience things I’ve never experienced before and go places I’ve never been before. I think that’s what’s fun about life — doing things you thought you’d never do.
Do you get pitched a lot of songs about being from the country?
A little bit. If it’s traditional country, the good thing about what I do — and I’m really proud of this — is that a lot of the more traditional songs come my way. I’m really proud that songwriters have the trust in me to do that. The downside of that is finding that rockin’ track. That really up-tempo, crazy go-getter is tough to find because people don’t picture me singing those.
What do you think when you hear a guy singing about being from the country and driving a truck and doing country stuff on the weekends? Do those songs grate on your nerves?
No, I don’t mind at all. As long as somebody’s singing about what they know, I don’t care. If I had to guess, I couldn’t imagine Taylor Swift singing about being a 40-something guy in a bar. She wouldn’t know anything about that. So she sings about what she knows about — and it works. She’s great at that. Same with me and same with everybody else. If I have experience and I’m able to deliver a song because of that, then it works.
In “She’s Just Like That,” there’s a reference to Keith Whitley, and you’ve sung about him before. Why does his music still speak to you?
With Keith Whitley, as far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the best singers we’ve ever had in country music and ever will have. It’s always good to go back and listen to a Keith Whitley record because it’s like listening to an old friend. You put a Keith Whitley record on — or George Strait or Don Williams — it’s like visiting with old family members. It takes you back to a different place in your life. It soothes me.
Do you remember the first country star you ever met?
Boy, the first country star I ever met. … Honestly, no! (laughs)
But do you remember the first one that really mattered?
Yeah, the first time I met Merle Haggard, I was extremely nervous and probably didn’t say much that made sense. He probably felt like, “What is this joker doing here?” That was a really big moment. He was so cool about it. He said, “Hey, I really appreciate what you’re doing. I like your style, and I like your music.” Of course, when I met George Strait or when I met Alan Jackson for the first time, I was just flabbergasted. Those are my heroes.
Last year, I saw you at the baggage claim at the Kansas City airport, of all places, and two girls came up to you. And you were really nice, posing for pictures and signing autographs. What is that experience like for you? Is it strange or flattering or just part of the job?
I think it’s wonderful. You think back to high school and you think if somebody wanted to give you the time of day to talk to you or to sign their yearbook, it made your day, didn’t it? It’s really flattering. That’s the way I look at it. If somebody wants to take their picture with me, I think it’s awesome. If I ever have an opportunity where somebody wants their picture taken with me, then absolutely, let’s take a picture. If I can sign something for you that means something to you, then I’d love to sign it for you. It makes me feel special, and everybody likes that feeling.
What do you have coming up? What are you looking forward to next year?
I don’t know what next year holds. Right now, this record is extremely important to me. Not just to my career but to me personally. It’s as good a record I’ve made since Man With a Memory, and that says a lot. As far as next year, it just depends on what happens. … I know that it’s going to require a lot of work, whatever we do, to make sure people have a chance to hear this record. Of course, we’ll do our part, touring everywhere they’ll give us a chance to play.