By Kevin Zimmerman
Joe Nichols Finds Redemption
Redemption is a common enough theme in country music, but for Joe Nichols it hits particularly close to home.
After years of trying to break through, the late 1990s found him signing with (and being dropped by) a couple of labels. Even though this decade has been much kinder - a number of hit singles, multiple Grammy nominations; and the Academy of Country Music's 2002 "Top New Male Vocalist" accolade - his offstage lifestyle ultimately led to his checking into a substance abuse rehabilitation program in 2007, just a few weeks after getting married.
But Nichols' indomitable spirit has won out again, as is amply demonstrated on his ninth album, Old Things New (Universal South), which finds his distinctive baritone in fine shape on such highlights as the seductive "This Bed's Too Big," the bluesy "It's Me I'm Worried About," and the lively swing of "Cheaper Than a Shrink."
"When you first have a hit in this business, it's kind of a 'Look at me' deal," he says. "But I've had some big hits, to the point where I think most people know my name when they hear it on the radio. But lots of acts have hits without having an identity to go along with it. At this point, defining myself as an artist is the important thing."
That journey began, he says, when he was a boy growing up in Arkansas, listening to his bass-playing father perform "at family get-togethers, VFWs and beer joints." By high school, the younger Nichols had narrowed his career choices down to two: Music and professional baseball player. Although he worked hard at the latter, he says, music finally won out.
Relocating to Nashville, he hit the pavement and started knocking on doors. "I had this cocktail napkin that I wrote down all the times I heard 'No' on," he chuckles. "When I got up to 31 times, I started to wonder if maybe this wasn't going to happen."
A fortuitous meeting with guitarist/songwriter Brent Rowan changed all that, however. "He started pitching me to his friends at the different record labels, and things started to happen."
After a couple of record deals that didn't work out, Nichols eventually landed at Universal South, and the hits, as they say, started coming. And while the attendant good times may have eventually led to rehab, Nichols is characteristically trying to use the experience as an instructive one for others.
Hence the recent launch of AnOldFriendOfMine.com, named for one of the new album's most stirring tunes, about a man's struggles with the bottle. The site, established in partnership with crisis phone center Hopeline, offers support and live chat for those facing difficulties in their own lives.
That sense of responsibility is in part what drew Nichols to SESAC, he adds. "They showed a lot of interest in me from an early stage, and encouraged me when things didn't look so great. They've been more like a family than just an organization."
And while he's understandably pleased with what he's accomplished so far, Nichols says he's always working on his craft.
"I realize that the ability to make a living the way I do is pretty unique, and to do it well is satisfying," he says. "But the goal is always to keep working, wherever and whenever possible."