Joe Nichols began recording his current album, Real Things, at just about the same time a new regime took over at his label, Universal South Records. Former Sony Records executive Mark Wright replaced Universal South's founders and senior partners, Tony Brown and Tim DuBois, who had originally signed Nichols. Wright also assigned himself to co-produce the Nichols project, in league with the singer's long-time producer, Brent Rowan.
"It was a pretty smooth transition," Nichols recalls. "Everything has its growing pains when you switch leadership. ... We're still trying to feel our way through this thing and make the right calls."
Although Nichols says he didn't request a change in producers, he adds, "I thought it would be good if Mark came in and co-produced. But at the same time, I knew it would be great if he let me work with Brent because of the relationship I've had with [him]."
Reviews of Real Things have ranged from positive to enthusiastic, and the album splashed onto the Billboard charts at No. 2.
Some of Nashville's most hit-prone songwriters contributed to the album, among them Jeffrey Steele, Rivers Rutherford, Troy Verges, Jamey Johnson, Carson Chamberlain, Earl Bud Lee, Tom Shapiro, Dean Dillon, Scotty Emerick, Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo, Sam and Annie Tate and John Scott Sherrill. Only one of the songs -- "The Difference Is Night and Day" -- is a Nichols co-write.
As customary, the album includes the cover of a country classic. This time around it's "If I Could Only Fly," the Blaze Foley composition Merle Haggard made famous. Nichols says he learned the song from a "$1.99 DVD" his guitar player bought at Wal-Mart.
"[We] watched it on the bus for several nights," he says. "I thought it was one of the better songs [Haggard] did in his set -- one of the best ones I'd never heard. So we started working on it. We worked it up live, and it came off really good. So we went back into the studio, and I asked if I could cut the song." Lee Ann Womack accompanies him on the album version.
While contemplative and serious for the most part, Real Things has its share of upbeat, lighthearted tunes, notably "Comin' Back in a Cadillac," "It Ain't No Crime" and "Let's Get Drunk and Fight." But there's nothing quite as raucous and video-ready as "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," a song for which Nichols has special regard.
"It brought us out of a stale rut," he says of his 2005 No. 1 hit and gold-certified single. "We had a run there with a couple of singles that we thought were great music. But they didn't communicate all that well with the audience. We didn't sell quite as many [albums] as we'd have liked to and didn't maintain the course that Man With a Memory [his debut CD for Universal South] gave us. 'Tequila' kind of put us back on that path."
So what is the "real thing" when it comes to Joe Nichols? Is he the brooding, introspective soul conveyed in "The Impossible" and "If Nobody Believed in You" or the party animal implicit in "Tequila" and "What's a Guy Gotta Do"?
"I don't think they're two different guys," Nichols says without hesitation. "They're just two different parts of the day."