Joe Nichols’ Comeback? “Yeah”

New Album Brings Second No. 1 Hit in a Row

Now that Joe Nichols has tallied his second No. 1 hit in a row with the appealing affirmation of “Yeah,” the lean Arkansas native has started feeling the love he enjoyed during his early career once again.

“Just recently I played a sold-out show in South Carolina,” he told CMT.com during an office visit, “and I was thinking, ‘I couldn’t have done this two years, three years ago.’”

“Yeah” spent three weeks at the top of Billboard‘s country airplay chart and has been certified gold for 500,000 combined downloads and streams, but he has faced some moments of uncertainty in his career.

After his recording contract with Show Dog-Universal ended in 2012, Nichols signed with the upstart Red Bow Records, an imprint launched by Broken Bow Records and RED Distribution. He felt some big changes needed to be made if he were to move forward as an artist.

With his full-bodied baritone, Nichols has always thought of himself as a traditionally-minded singer. But how could he keep that commitment and redefine himself at the same time?

“We wanted to take care of the fans that have been here all along, country fans that have given me 12 years of loyalty,” he said.

The answer was Crickets, a combination of new country ideals and a classic voice.

The chances Nichols took have already paid off, first with the chart-topping success of “Sunny and 75″ and now with the follow-up “Yeah,” but he’s not done yet. Nichols is pretty sure there are more hits to be made from the Crickets track listing.

CMT.com: With back-to-back No. 1 singles, do you feel like you’re at the top of your game right now?

Nichols: I will say I feel better now than I have since the beginning of my career. That first couple of songs that we had off the first record gave us a big lift, put us on a big path, and I think right now this trajectory that we’re on beats even that. I think it’s full of opportunity. …

The album’s full of singles that we feel like are hits, and that’s a rare thing for me ’cause usually it’s an album that’s got a couple of obvious singles — maybe one or two — and then a bunch of good album cuts. But this album is different in that way. I think there are eight or nine singles that we can go with, so that might give us a little sustained momentum to go into the next album. We have the opportunity to do something really special in the next couple of years.

During your shows, can you notice a difference in the audience when you have a song climbing up the charts?

Oh, yeah. I’ve noticed a big difference over the past two years, from not just the size of the crowds but also the energy of the crowds. The age diversity is also pretty big. I love being a kind of traditional guy, and we still have the older crowd that comes out and sees us play. But having songs like “Sunny and 75″ and “Yeah,” I think it’s good to see the new crowd get excited.

What is it about songs like “Yeah” and “Sunny and 75″ that makes them connect so much better than in the past?

I think there’s a hunger with this album. With the past few albums, I’ve been more pissed-off than hungry — more pissed-off and a little bitter and just kind of tired and not into it. But you can tell with the vocals and the energy level, this is a hungry album.

But what sticks out about the songs is we’ve got a good balance, which is rare for me, as well, because we’ve got seven or eight or nine songs out of the 16 that are more of this progressive sound with country vocal. And then you’ve got six or seven really country songs that are what you’d normally hear from me on records past.

Let’s talk about “Yeah.” Do you remember when you first heard it?

I remember when I first heard it. When I got the song pitched to me by Mike Owens, he said, “Man, this might be out in left field for you because you’re more of a traditional guy, but I think this is a hit.” And he played it for me, and I said, “Put that on hold for me, please!” I didn’t even have a record deal at the time, but I said, “Put that on hold for me and let me have a crack at this.” It immediately struck me as a big hit.

Why did you think that?

I think what’s catchy about it is also what’s clever about it. The chorus opens with this big one-word line and then it goes right into this nifty, catchy little clever line. I think that’s cool. If you can be gimmicky and clever in the same song, usually it’ll work because the songs that don’t do so well are usually ones that are either one or the other. If you can match up the catchiness with some intelligence, then you’ve got something. That’s what struck me.

How did the comic book idea for the “Yeah” video come up?

We actually wanted to make the video with this cheesy idea. It was supposed to look very fake. You know, the fake campfire and the fake trees and the weird expressions and all that stuff. It was supposed to look very cheesy. But when we got done with the video, the first edit didn’t look like it was intentionally cheesy. It just kind of looked unintentional and awkward.

The director came back with an idea and said, “I can either add animation or this comic book theme.” He sent a 30-second snapshot of the video turned into this comic book thing, and it was like that video came alive. It was completely different. It didn’t fall flat. It had a life, a soul. I was thinking, “This guy saved the day.”

Without the comic book theme, we were like, “Oh, man, I think it kind of missed.” And then he said, “Well, how about this?” and immediately it went from one of my least-favorite videos I’ve ever done to my favorite video I’ve ever done.

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007. The devil made him do it the first time, the second time he done it on his own.