Joe Nichols
 Ann Marie Hensley

Joe Nichols will be the first to admit that his newest project, "Crickets," is just a little bit different than anything he has released before. 

"It's a fresh kind of sound for me, a little more progressive than I've done before," he says of the disc, which will be released on Tuesday. "I think it's a really cool and modern take on what I like to do. We went in the studio with the approach of 'Let's try it out and see what happens, and see what we're capable of.' We came up with songs like 'Sunny and 75,' and other songs that are very competitive with today's radio. But, still at the same time, we keep a real traditional feel to the album."

"Sunny and 75" has made an impact on the charts, rising to No. 14 on Hot Country Songs. Nichols told Billboard that his recent label switch from Show Dog -- Universal to Broken Bow imprint Red Bow has given him a shot in the arm. 

"They have been phenomenal to me from day one. From the day we started talking about music up to today. We're talking about radio and the launch of the record. They've just been a delight to work with. I've been releasing records since 2002, and not all those experiences have been great. This one has been outstanding so far. Everyone has treated me with respect, and everyone is making decisions in the right way with the bigger picture in mind. It's about the music. Get the music right, and we make the decisions based on where the music takes us."

Crickets is a mixture of deep ballads and tempo-driven fare, such as "Hee Haw." Nichols smiles when he talks about that particular track, saying "It's corny and goofy. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say ridiculous. I like songs like this because it is silly, but at the same time it feels good. It feels fun. Music is supposed to be a little lighter sometimes. 'Hee Haw' isn't going to win any Grammys for lyrical genius, but it will put you in a good mood and make you smile."

The ballads on the disc are a little bit lighter sounding than some of his earlier hits, as well. "I think that historically for me, the ballad stuff I have done has always been a little bit darker – as far as emotions go. Maybe even depressing, at times, but I think the ballad work on this album is more positive. It's romantic and intimate. It's a reflection of where I am in my life," he says of songs like "Baby, You're In Love With Me" and "Just Let Me Fall In Love With You."

One "ballad" that did not make this album is his slowed-down version of the Sir Mix A Lot classic "Baby Got Back," which has become something of a YouTube sensation among his fans. "We started doing that as a joke. It kind of developed legs and became this thing. It has opened my mind a bit into doing things that are beyond what we might consider when we are searching for songs. We could reach in and grab things from other genres, and put our little twist on them. What makes 'Baby Got Back' unique is that we do it as a country shuffle. I think that opens the door on the next album for some out-of-the-country-genre song ideas."

He did cover Merle Haggard's "Footlights" on the album, which is a very important song for him. It was one of his late father's favorites, Nichols said it made sense to be on the album -- for that and other reasons. 

"I have lived my life with my heart wide open. A lot of times, that has gotten me in trouble. For the most part, musically, it's given me the benefit of having a therapeutic value that I could never replace with anything else. For me, that's a personal moment on the record that my dad -- who got me to loving country music in the first place -- would love. It's also a tribute to Merle Haggard -- who taught me how to sing. It's my favorite song of his, and I've always wanted to cut it. That opportunity finally came, and it's very fitting that it's on this album. It's a new start, but I wanted to pay tribute to how I got where I'm at. It's one of my favorite moments on the record, if not my personal favorite."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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