Joe Nichols' new record Never Gets Old feels like a new chapter that sounds a lot like some old ones. The thoroughly enjoyable 12-song album lands between the neo-traditional revival and the modern fare gathering new country fans by the thousands. It's a place Nichols feels most comfortable. But he hasn't always been able to live there.
"Sometimes it's just as important to be confident in yourself as it is to have good music," says Nichols. The 40-year-old singer behind hits like "Sunny and 75," "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" and "Gimme That Girl" is talking lessons he's learned on his long, 10-album journey since his 1996 debut.
"We can do things that make people realize we're not as serious about ourselves or our music as we should be," he adds. "You can have good music, but you've got to have your head in the game. Take yourself seriously. Then you build something that lets you be silly and release songs like 'Baby Got Back.'"
Nichols knows what he's talking about. His career includes chart-topping songs and Grammy nominations. It also includes battling with and overcoming addiction issues, traversing the bro country phase and staying afloat in the ebbs and flows of the music business.
Sticking to His Guns
Never Gets Old took four years to come out -- the longest period of time between albums for Nichols. But for him, the process was ultimately worth it. "It's always a bit longer of a process than you want it to be," Nichols says. "We ended up cutting out a lot of songs that felt too progressive."
In this context, "progressive" probably means exactly what you think it does. Ultimately, Nichols is happiest playing the kind of music he grew up loving.
But at the same time, arguably Nichols' biggest radio successes came in the form of "Yeah," a progressive (to borrow his term) song from his 2013 album Crickets that soared to No. 1 status at the height of the bro country phase. And that kind of success may be a mixed bag for an artist whose first love is smooth baritones, steel guitar and shuffle beats.
It's a fine balance between wanting traditional "success" and wanting to stick to your guns, even for a charming and amiable character like Joe Nichols. "I want a hit just as bad as the next guy," Nichols says.
"I've been fortunate enough to have a few, but knowing what it does long-term to be successful with something you don't like? That's a sticky wicket. That's a hard way to go down right there."
A Traditional Joe
When it came time to record Never Gets Old, Nichols spent some time thinking about what he really wanted from this next chapter in his musical career. "With the success of 'Sunny and 75' and 'Yeah,' it was tempting to go even further into progressive," he says. "But at the end of the day, what felt right in my gut was, I'm a traditional country guy. This album needs to represent me."
"If I could sound like 60s, 70s and 80s country for the rest of my life, I'd be happy."
And that's partially why it took awhile to record the album. Never Gets Old features a lot of the same team behind Crickets. And when the song selection and recording process started, things seemed to be headed to Crickets Version 2.
It's not hard to hear. Songs like "We All Carry Something," "I'd Sing About You," "Never Gets Old" and "This Side Of The River" will transport you right back to the early 2000s when Nichols was nabbing awards and nominations left and right. "[Never Gets Old] is not really a new direction, it's just back to my old direction."
"I just didn't want to listen to the radio and try to go do that," he says. "Not just follow whatever is working out there."
Few artists who have success in that world have the ability or foresight to not chase it anymore. And countless new artists come to Nashville every day trying to track it down.
Other great tunes on the album include "Billy Graham's Bible," which also went out on Crickets but kind of got lost in the noise. So Nichols included it again in case they sent it out as a single.
And then there's "So You're Saying," a clever toe-tapper that neither of us knows for sure was inspired by the famous "So you're saying there's a chance?" line in Dumb and Dumber, but we both sure hope so.
Is Nichols relieved he's back to making records he'll be proud of for the next 30 years? Yes and no. "It's a huge sigh of relief, but I'm also incredibly nervous about it." Which is ironic -- that releasing a country album that leans more traditional country to country radio in 2017 is actually the riskier move.
But Nichols did it anyways because it's who he is and what he loves. And whether it's traditional or "progressive," making music you love is something every artist should aspire to. Just take it from Joe.