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It's no stretch to say that Joe Nichols is country music's finest vocalist in at least a generation. That's not to diminish the often stunning vocal work of his immediate predecessors-what elevates Nichols above his peers in terms of vocal chops is that he's a natural singer. This was evident on his 1996 debut and it's fully realized on his sixth album, "Old Things New." The set's title track evokes the primal pain and loneliness of George Jones during his Billy Sherrill-produced '70s heyday, while Merle Haggard's influence is displayed on the bone-chilling "This Bed's Too Big." Playful moments emerge on "Gimmie That Girl" and "Cheaper Than a Shrink," the latter extolling the painkilling virtues of good whiskey (though Nichols has successfully battled his own demons recently). The haunting "An Old Friend of Mine" finds the 32-year-old Nichols reciting words of sober resolution while communicating tortured forbearance. It looks like his honky-tonk forefathers-Haggard, Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Gene Watson, to name a few-were effective tutors.-Wade Jessen
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