By K.C. Libman
Joe Nichols has a self-imposed duty to uphold. That is not a self-aggrandizing statement, nor is it overwrought hyperbole for his role in country music. Rather, Nichols is a modern artist who places importance on traditional country music, the same vein he’s been working as no less than five of his singles have hit the top of the Country Airplay chart since 2003. If nothing else, he’s a self-aware harbinger who’s looking to maintain the ideals of the genre he entered almost 20 years ago.
“As a genre, we’ve forgotten who loves our music, and for the most part that’s middle America, just regular people,” he says, less a lamentation and more of a call to arms. “I think in an effort to be cool, the fashionable thing, the hip thing, we’ve kind of forgotten that that’s our bread and butter. We’re country music; we represent the common man and woman.”
In the past two years Nichols has had two number one singles, last year’s “Yeah” and 2013’s “Sunny and 75,” songs that resonated with the entire nation and not just flyover states. The latter was, as Nichols puts it, “one of the hardest things I’ve had to sing and definitely out of my comfort zone,” but he attributes its polarizing nature to its success: Either you love the song or you don’t. It’s arguably the one of the most pop-oriented of his singles, “Yeah” notwithstanding, but its success marked a tidal shift in Nichols’ approach that doesn’t seem to sit so well with him, given his preferred writing style.
“To me, [country music] gotten a little fickle,” he says. “The music has gotten a little bit redundant at times, which I can’t really complain about because I try not to do what everybody else is doing and try to stick somewhat close to traditional country music because that’s the kind of artist I am, so I can’t really complain that much. There’s hills and valleys in all genres and I think we’ve kind of brought this on ourselves with not knowing what’s going to happen next year, what’s going to be popular.”
If Nichols has any benchmark for aspiration, it’s that of George Strait’s legacy and tenure. To Nichols, he’s the “prototypical country singer,” noting his ability to hit the top of the country charts in four different decades alone. What transcends Strait’s chart success, in Nichols’ eyes, is his ability to tell stories, something that Nichols places at the forefront of his writing.
“I think country was built on that kind of thing — storytelling and what your average day is like, weekend is like — and for me I think the lyric has to be meaningful to be a country song,” he explains. “I think it needs to sound like a country song from a country singer, believable as a country song. If it can fit in other genres 100 percent of the time, then you should probably look at what that really is.”
Of all the stories Nichols has sung, it may be “No Time To Cry,” the final track from his 2004 record Revelation, that may ring truest to his heart. In 2002, as Nichols’ single “The Impossible,” from his second record Man with a Memory, began climbing the charts, his father passed away from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. It led to a period of self-medication and distress for Nichols, remedied by rehab and work. He can sing happily today because while those events may have rocked him to his foundation at the time, he knows they helped shape him into the artist he is today.
“I became less of a happy person for a long period of time,” he says. “I kind of built up this sick little resentment, like ‘How can you people want to be a part of me without even knowing who I am?’ When I was starting to medicate a bit or process feelings, or both, I think things started loosening up a little bit and getting lighter, forcibly. I had to start getting right with how I was feeling inside and where my career was, who I was as a person. I hate how it happened the way that it happened, and I hate how I reacted because it was immature, carrying it that long, unhealthy, but here I am because of it.”