Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols’ classical country roots are showcased in simple voice-dominated arrangements and a thoughtful delivery that’s wise beyond his 26 years

Associated Press

Las Vegas

Joe Nichols was lying on the floor of a Nashville home, installing a television cable, when the customer asked him, “Aren’t you Joe Nichols?”

Cable man was one of several jobs Nichols held in the three years after his self-titled independent CD flopped in 1996. A couple of videos made it to Country Music Television, but the songs went nowhere on radio or in stores.

So Nichols loaded UPS trucks, sold steaks door-to-door and connected cable - until the woman recognised him from his videos. That inspired him to get back to his music.

Thirty-one record company rejections later, he was signed in January 2002 by fledgling label Universal South. The resulting album, ‘Man With a Memory’, sold more than 5,00,000 copies. The first single, “The Impossible”, reached No 2 on the Billboard country chart. The follow-up, “Brokenheartsville,” went No 1.

Both songs underscore Nichols’ traditional approach to music — he grew up with the sounds of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Hank Williams Jr in his house and a truck-driving father who moonlighted as a bass player.

The collar-length hair, the earring, the clothes -—you’re often said to look more like a rock star than a country singer. And you even admit liking sushi?

I can’t do the raw stuff, but I like the sushi rolls. Maybe some things need to expand a little bit in country like the way people dress, the way they act, the kind of food they like. I think country’s always been kind of straight and narrow. Some of the things that are happening now are a sign of growing pains — expanding.

Your music is more traditional than a lot of mainstream country. Do you colour a little outside the lines?

We kinda think a little bit different than the form as of late in Nashville. We think back to the roots from a ground up standpoint. Put on what the record needs — whatever the song takes — not put everything on and take away what it doesn’t.

You hear your songs on radio, see your videos are on TV. Is it hard to stay good ol’ Joe Nichols from Rogers, Arkansas?

It’s weird when people recognise the song but don’t recognise me. I’m in the grocery store and the song comes on and they go, ‘I like this song,’ and not notice that I’m standing right there. I’ve got good friends around me. They keep me grounded. The first signs of arrogance or an ego, the good people’ll back you off that real quick. Besides, I got a mom.

What did you learn from your 1996 album?

I was about 18 years old. I really didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do. I didn’t know what direction I was going in. I came in the back door of Nashville. I stayed in Arkansas. All I did was shoot the video and release the song to radio. When I left the record deal I had to approach Nashville from scratch. I had to start at the bottom and that’s what took so long to get back into the music mode.

And in the meantime you really sold steaks door-to-door?

For one day. It was a pretty miserable day. I think that probably was the day I most wanted to be a musician.