In a year in which the fringe aspects of country music are taking on more shine than ever with traditionalist acts like Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson sitting firmly in the spotlight, it’s as good a critical time as ever for Joe Nichols to come in swinging.
An active artist for the past 20 years, Nichols has never been shy about his love for the traditional aspects of country music, from retaining of the genre’s signature sonic elements to the everyman storytelling that’s a hallmark of its appeal. Right now, all of the things that he loves are becoming popular again.
“I hope that a there’s a unified pendulum swing [toward traditional country music] and not necessarily a splintering,” Nichols says. “It feels like there’s definitely still a crowd that wants this poppier, rock version of country, but there’s a very loud portion of country fans who want to go back to the old school.”
Part of that transition away from the country format of yesterday also means that radio, arguably the benchmark by which many country artists are still measured, has changed as well. If you think that you’ve been hearing the same artists release song after song to great fanfare lately, you’re right. Nichols released his second single from his forthcoming record, a sultry slow-burner of a track called “Undone,” back in May, but it’s taking a bit to make the splash he’d like to see in major radio markets.
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“Right now we’re in one of those places where there’s 10 or 12 top artists who are getting records played a lot quicker than others, and there’s a lot of new acts that are getting played a lot quicker than I can remember,” he says. “Those are all good things but it does make things a lot slower for everybody else that’s not brand new or not named Blake Shelton.”
He mentions Shelton with a laugh, but Nichols is definitely conscious of the politics that surround the music industry. Have you been waiting for a new Joe Nichols record? So has he. He’s been dropping singles for a full year now, and his upcoming LP doesn’t seem to have a hard release date yet.
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“It’s one of those things where everything has to line up right, and it’s taking a little longer than we’d like, but you have to have the spirits right and have the right singles,” Nichols explains. “You know, ‘Undone’ seems like it’s one of those that could pop at any moment and take off, but I don’t know, it seems like radio likes it, fans are commenting on it, so it feels right but it’s a little tied up right now. Everyone’s out there fighting for that top spot – viciously.”
While he waits for the green light around his work, Nichols has also been working with Breathless: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at IPF, a foundation that seeks to raise awareness and find a cure for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, the disease that took his father’s life in 2002. Nichols sounds more at peace than I’ve heard him in the past few years when we’ve touched on the topic of his father, and his open heart feels like the result of his newfound role.
“It seemed like for 12 or 13 years that there was an empty hole surrounding my dad’s death,” he says. “It was like it just happened out of the blue, he was a young guy and nobody said ‘Here’s why it happened, here’s what we’re doing to help it.’ There was this void of no answers or no closure. When I got together with the pharmaceutical company that’s working on a treatment for it and I was given the opportunity to be a spokesperson for it and actually contribute, it was the first time it felt it like there was some purpose. I leaped at the opportunity, because it was more of an emotional response because finally, I have a way to do something.”
Joe Nichols is scheduled to play Queen Creek Performing Arts Center on Saturday, September 24.