When Joe Nichols set out to chase his neon rainbow, he admittedly yearned for the type of career that would allow him to provide for he and his family for twenty years.
As the clock struck midnight to ring in 2022, he not only reached that milestone, but he’s carved out a career that has him poised for another twenty years.
Through his first two decades, Nichols has earned eight number one singles, multiple awards, Grammy nominations, and he’s continued to bring his brand of country music to his fans all over the world. Not one to settle, Nichols is celebrating year twenty with the release of Good Day for Living, his ninth major label album that captures Nichols at a perfect time in his career: he’s confident, free to make the music that he loves, and he’s once again stayed true to the “Joe Nichols sound” that his fans have come to love.
Before he had a chance to carve out that sound, though, Nichols was struck by the honky tonk music his family introduced to him in his formative years.
“My dad was my earliest musical influence. If it hadn’t been for my dad, my uncles and my grandpa, I would’ve never known anything about music. They listened to guys like Merle, Willie, Hank and George Jones, so I got a good feel for honky tonk songs when I was four or five years-old,” says Nichols. “My father used to be a very early riser; he would wake up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning for work. He had this stereo that was about as big as a coffin, and it had a record player, an 8-track and a radio. I remember it like it happened this morning: he would put on a Merle Haggard record and play it loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear.”
Though he developed a similar love for the music his father introduced him to, Nichols didn’t follow in his father’s performing footsteps until he reached his mid-teens.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be two things: a baseball player and a singer. I thought those were two pretty cool gigs. As I got into my teenage years, I realized music was where the money and girls were, so I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living,” Nichols says with a laugh. “Up until I turned fifteen or sixteen, I never sang in front of anybody. The one time I sang in church, I was about five years-old. I got up and led the choir in singing ‘Red Neckin’ Love Makin’ Night’ by Conway Twitty, and that didn’t go over well in church. After that, I would just sing to myself in my room, and it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I started getting the nerve to sing in front of people.”
Soon, Nichols would be singing in front of very important people. As he began courting record labels to release his major label debut, he stuck to his traditional country guns with the hope of the right deal coming through.
“I started out with Giant Records. We had a song called ‘Man With a Memory’ and another called ‘That Would Be Her.’ Giant got absorbed into Warner Brothers, so we kept those songs in our pocket. Warner Brothers thought that we should go in the direction of rock-sounding country; trying to take me away from what I was doing. My producer at the time and I didn’t see it that way: we saw me as more of a traditional guy. We didn’t want to do something that wasn’t comfortable to me, because eventually, that wouldn’t work out,” says Nichols. “They decided to let me out of my contract and buy the music from them. When we were shopping for labels, there were a few deals that looked really good, but the one that felt right was Universal South.”
With his label home in place, Nichols headed into the studio to record his major label debut album, Man With a Memory, which was launched at radio with a song called “The Impossible.” Nichols recalls listening to the song with members of Universal South and knowing that they had a hit on their hands.
“I think everybody knew that song was special from the minute we heard it. Before it was mastered, we heard a mix of the song in the Universal South building,” says Nichols. “Everybody knew it was going to be the first single because it was so inspirational. It felt like a great introduction to radio. We all knew it was a hit song.”
That feeling was reaffirmed when Nichols and his team heard the song on the radio for the first time.
“There’s something really special about hearing your song on the radio, especially for the first time. We were gathered for lunch at the Universal South building, and one of the radio stations in Nashville said they were going to play it during the lunch hour,” says Nichols. “As we were sitting there having lunch, someone yelled ‘There it is!’ We put it on blast and let everyone in Nashville hear it from that office. It was an incredible feeling. We all high-fived and hugged each other. It sounded so good on the radio. It sounded so special.”
The song sounded so good on the radio, in fact, that it reached number one on the Radio and Records chart, and was followed by “Brokenheartsville,” a song that Nichols was able to record after a country legend passed on the song.
“Mike Owens, an A&R guy at the label, found ‘Brokenheartsville.’ We heard that George Strait was the only person that had listened to it, and he passed on it,” says Nichols. “We had first crack at it, and we knew if we nailed it in the studio, we had ourselves a hit.”
Not only did Nichols nail the song in the studio, “Brokenheartsville” also shot to number one on the charts, providing Nichols with strong momentum out of the gate.
“It’s a crazy feeling being up there on the charts with some really great records,” says Nichols. “There were guys like Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw up there, and then there was little old me up there with them. I told myself if nothing else happened from there on out, I always had that. It was a really cool feeling.”
By the time the singles on Man With a Memory had run their course, Nichols was also receiving praise from within the industry as well, earning Top New Male Vocalist at the ACM Awards, the Horizon Award at the CMAs and three Grammy nominations.
“Front to back, we thought that album was special and really unique. It had radio singles, but it had a country feel to it. At the time, that wasn’t a very popular thing; it was a very pop-driven format. That album almost felt like the start of a movement,” says Nichols. “The awards show stuff was beyond my wildest dreams. We were up against so many great artists like Blake Shelton and Gary Allan, just so many great artists that had wonderful careers going. I thought there was no way I would win. I thought maybe down the line I’d have a shot, but I figured I had no chance that year. The whole year was a blur with crazy moments like that.”
The crazy moments kept coming for Nichols, as he landed opening slots for Alan Jackson and Toby Keith, two artists he may have spun in heavy rotation during his years as a country DJ in high school.
“It was super intimidating to all of a sudden be a part of that group. I always wanted to be a musician and have the kind of career where I could tell my kids that their father had a couple of hits in the early 2000s,” says Nichols. “To be launched even higher than I thought I was capable of, I was scared to death. Landing those spots was a lot of high praise from a lot of very important people.”
With the release of his next album, Revelation, Nichols earned another top 10 single with “If Nobody Believed In You” before co-writing a song that was on the edge of earning him his first number one as a writer with “What’s a Guy Gotta Do.”
“That song shot all the way up to number two, and it sat there for three weeks. ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ was at number one for eight or nine weeks in a row, and we sat behind it,” says Nichols. “I thought that would be the time a generational song would be at number one. That’s how close I came to writing a number one song.”
Though both singles from Revelation proved successful at radio, record sales didn’t quite match those of Man With a Memory, meaning with his third album, III, Nichols and his team knew they had to make a good first impression at radio, and they had just the song to do it.
“When III came out, we needed some re-energizing. Man With a Memory went platinum, and Revelation just went gold. We knew we needed to knock the first single out of the park, and that’s when ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off’ came around,” says Nichols. “The demo was so slow and awkward, but I knew that if we could take that song and put our stamp on it, it could be a hit. It’s a playful and suggestive song, but it’s not over the top.”
Though Nichols felt strongly about the song, his record label initially had reservations about releasing the song.
“The label got scared right before we put it out. They called me into the office and said that there were a lot of ladies at the label that were a little worried that the song may be a little offensive, and that we should at least consider that before putting it out,” says Nichols. “I knew that I needed to stand up for myself. I told them that song had to be the single. To talk ourselves out of a hit because of what we think might happen would be a disservice. They said, ‘Here we go then.’”
After “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” earned Nichols another number one single, his next album offering, Real Things, captured Nichols at a vulnerable time in his life, which is reflected in the somber nature of the record.
“Emotionally, there was so much going on in my life. I was struggling with alcohol and substances, and I was at a point of screaming,” says Nichols. “Real Things is a heavy record, and it’s just me aching to get back to something that felt real to me. The title track was just kind of crying for something like a screened in porch and a rainy day with my grandpa and grandma laughing.”
Though the two singles from Real Things, “Another Side of You” and “It Ain’t No Crime,” each entered the top 20, Nichols’ label left a song on the table that eventually found its way to number one for another artist.
“I was championing to release ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ as a single. The label was saying that Josh Turner had ‘Long Black Train,’ and they felt that ‘Another Side of You’ could catch that same crowd. I thought it was a mistake, because I knew we had a hit,” says Nichols. “After ‘Another Side of You’ didn’t work, they told me that they didn’t feel like there were any hits on the record. I thought they were out of their damn minds, and it was killing me, along with themselves, to not release ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.’ We moved on and started making the next record. Blake Shelton went and cut the song, and it went to number one. I brought in a little paper chart and to my producer at the time, who was one of the people who said it wasn’t a hit, and showed him that it was a number one song. Later on, Blake said the biggest mistake we made was not releasing it to radio.”
Though they may have missed a hit song, as Shelton’s recording was running up the charts, Nichols was recording what would be his next number one single from his next album, Old Things New.
“When ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ went number one for Blake, we were in the studio recording ‘Gimmie That Girl,’” says Nichols. “We all knew that song felt like a big one. It took a little while to get up to the top 20. When it did, Universal South merged with Show Dog, and the new promotion staff picked up the football at the top 20 and ran it all the way up to number one, and it sat there for a few weeks. That ended up being my first multi-week number one.”
After the release of his next album, It’s All Good, Nichols parted ways with Show Dog-Universal after a disagreement following the release of a greatest hits album.
“I felt like they did me wrong a little bit. They put out a greatest hits album against my will. I told them that I didn’t have enough hits for a greatest hits album, and it felt to me like they were trying to mark the end of my career,” says Nichols. “I was kind of angry for a little while, and it does make you question if this really was the end. When you’ve been with somebody for so long and then you part ways, it’s a little scary.”
A revitalized Nichols took to the studio and laid the foundation for what would be another career resurgence.
“We went in the studio and cut a few things, and we came out thinking we had some hits on our hands. We had a few label offers, and one was from Benny Brown at Broken Bow Records. He said they were making a new imprint, and he asked if I wanted to be the flagship guy, and I was on board with that,” says Nichols. “Mike Owens found a song called ‘Yeah,’ and we knew that would work at radio. A song called ‘Sunny and 75’ was brought to a pitch meeting as we were wrapping up that record, and I thought it was pretty pop for me. I didn’t really want to record it, but Benny asked if I would just go in and record it and see how it turns out. If we didn’t like it, no one would ever hear it.”
Won over by the final recording of the song, Nichols released “Sunny and 75” as the lead single from its album, Crickets, and was quickly met by high praise from country radio, as was “Yeah.”
“We released ‘Sunny and 75,’ and people were jumping up and down for it. I thought it sounded so different for me, but I loved it. I was just hoping radio was ready for something like that from me,” says Nichols. “That song had my biggest add date at radio. We had a really great ride with that one and ‘Yeah.’ It felt like another comeback. They both ended up going number one. It was very inspiring.”
After one more release for Red Bow Records, the traditional-leaning Never Gets Old, Brown courted Nichols once again to sign with his new label, Quartz Hill Records, which produced Good Day for Living, Nichols’ first album in four years.
“Benny called me one day later in the pandemic and said that he was starting a new label and that he wanted me to be a part of it. You would have thought somebody called me in to pinch hit in a World Series game and I hit a home run,” says Nichols. “It just felt right. He’s been so wonderful to me. We feel like we have a lot of singles on this record. We have ‘Good Day for Living’ out now, and it feels really good. It’s early in the process, but radio seems to be responding to it. I don’t want to jinx it, but it sure feels good.”
While he feels there are plenty of songs that are destined for success at radio, Nichols says he is proud of the depth of the album.
“We have the singles that feel really good, but then we have songs like ‘Hawaii On Me’ and ‘She Was,’” says Nichols. “We have that depth on there. It feels like a quality, well-rounded album.”
With Good Day for Living, Nichols brought with him a newfound confidence to the studio and in his team around him that translated into the sound of the album.
“There’s not a better feeling in the world than the confidence that Benny provides. When you’re making music, one thing that’s absolutely necessary is confidence. You have to be confident in who you are, and you have to be comfortable in the studio,” says Nichols. “A good example is the song ‘All Good Things’ from the Real Things record. I was so timid and so lost. I didn’t know if I knew who I was or what I was doing. I could hear it all over that song. With this new situation, I have all of the confidence from Benny and the freedom to go in the studio and swing for the fences.”
Not only does Good Day for Living stand up with Nichols’ previous works from a quality perspective, it falls in line sonically as well with what his fans expect to hear from his music.
“I hope people realize that this feels like me. One of the greatest compliments I’ve gotten, especially about this record, is that it sounds like a Joe Nichols record,” says Nichols. “If there’s anything that I’ve wanted over the course of my career, more than anything else, it’s an identity. When I hear people say that, it tells me that I do have an identity, and that people know what a Joe Nichols album sounds like.”
Through the highs and lows of twenty years of making music, Nichols feels blessed for the road he has traveled to this point.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else. I don’t know that I’ve ever been good at anything else,” says Nichols. “The Lord has blessed me in so many ways. In times that I’ve doubted that I was any good at this, He sprinkled gifts throughout my career that only could have come from Him. I believe that with every ounce of my soul. I’m doing what He wants me to do, and that keeps me going.”
As he hits the road on his “Good Day For Living Tour,” Nichols takes pride in the twenty years he’s spent on both the road and on the radio, with no plans on slowing down any time soon.
“I remember doing interviews for ‘The Impossible’ like it was yesterday,” says Nichols. “In almost every interview I did, people were asking me where I saw myself in five years. I remember my answer very clearly: every time, I said that I hoped to be doing this in twenty years. I wanted to have a career that lasted as long as I wanted, not a finite number. I wanted to raise kids doing what I love. And twenty years later, I’m asking for the same thing. I want to do this for another twenty years.”
*Feature image by David “Doc” Abbott*
**We’ve added some of our favorite Joe Nichols songs to The Best of Pro Country playlist!**
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