The last few weeks have been uplifting ones for Joe Nichols. In October, he won a SESAC award for co-writing his hit, "What's a Guy Gotta Do." Then, his new album, III, debuted in Billboard at No. 2, his highest entry point ever. Currently, his single, "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," stands at a forward-looking No. 3 on the Billboard chart.
All this upbeat activity helped earn him a presenter's slot on the heavily-watched CMA Awards show in New York. And to top it all off, he's featured in a duet with Dolly Parton on her latest album.
Ace guitarist Brent Rowan produced Nichols' first two Universal South albums -- Man With a Memory and Revelation -- but Rowan shares production chores on III with Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney's producer) and Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw's longtime studio mentor). Rowan masterminded six of the songs on III, Cannon three and Gallimore two. "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" is one of Cannon's contributions.
Nichols says he didn't know he'd be working with anyone but Rowan when he began the album.
"It started off with Brent Rowan, like always," he explains. "I think the record label suggested that maybe for the third album we ought to step it up just a little bit, maybe just add some freshness to our sound and spur some hidden things as far as [my] vocals go. Maybe [with these changes] we could find a little bit more of an audience. Buddy Cannon and Bryon Gallimore came in and did great."
In his liner notes, Nichols thanks Gallimore for "taking an impossible task and pulling it off in such a fine fashion." What he was referring to there, he says, was the fact that the label brought Gallimore into the project at the last minute. He explains, "We got a very small amount of time to come up with two very solid songs. ... It was just no time to find songs and really no time in the studio. We did vocals all in one evening. It was an impossible thing all around. And he did great. 'Freedom Feels Like Lonely' and 'As Country As She Gets' both just came out spectacular."
The last time this reporter talked to Nichols, the singer was in Kentucky shooting the music video for "What's a Guy Gotta Do.'" The song has done well for him, and, as critics predicted, its flirty lyrics have made it a sure crowd-pleaser in his shows. "It's a big hit for us," Nichols agrees, "and I'm proud to have been a writer on it. But, you know, 'Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,' I think, is going to knock everything else we've done out of the water. ... It's bigger than anything I've ever done before."
Nichols credits Universal South's A&R director, Mike Owens, with finding "Tequila" for him. "He's got such a great ear for what I like -- and that's hardcore country songs with a little bit of an edge to them."
Two of the songs on III are Nichols' own co-compositions. His heavy touring schedule, he points out, limits his writing time. "I like to write when we're off the road. If I try to write while we're on the road, it adds more pressure to what we're doing already. I figure I'll take the time off that I have at the house and use that well. Out on the road, it's all I can do to keep up with the normal routine."
As he did in Revelation, Nichols covers a Gene Watson classic in III: "Should I Go Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)." He also includes a cover of Steve Earle's serenely doleful "My Old Friend the Blues." (Patty Loveless includes the Earle tune on her current album, Dreamin' My Dreams. Nichols says he wasn't aware when he cut the song that Loveless was doing it too. "I like the way we did it," he says, "and I look forward to hearing her version.")
Nichols asserts he's not locked into redoing a classic country song on each album, but he admits he's open to it. "There are a lot of great songs out there that have already been done. If we can kind of bring a modern touch to them, then great." One song he has his eye on is Merle Haggard's "Footlights," which he labels as "one of my favorites of all time."
A few months back, Nichols encountered another classic when Parton asked him to join her in recording "If I Were a Carpenter," Johnny Cash and June Carter's 1970 hit written by the late Tim Hardin. It's now on her album, Those Were the Days, which came out in October.
Fans viewing III's CD cover will notice a buffed up and shorter-haired Nichols. The new look was his own idea, he says. "It was time for one of those changes, you know. I was like 'Hey ... this I what I want to do. Let's find somebody that's got talent with hair and let's cut it down a little bit. Let's give it a shot.'"
Urged on by a personal trainer, Nichols says he tries to work out every day whether on or off the road. "It's for many reasons. Being in shape, yes, but also to take care of myself in the long run. ... It's a total body workout."
Nichols has played the Grand Ole Opry several times. Given his traditionalist leaning, it seems only fitting to ask him if he sees Opry membership in his future. "It's something I've always hoped for," he concedes, "but I don't know. You've just got to see how it plays out. We'll see what happens. Hopefully, it will happen for us, but you can't push things like that."
Perhaps his momentum will be push enough.