The driving backbeat, the manly vocals and the sleek, radio-friendly production are all key to Joe Nichols' latest single. But the most memorable part of the three-minute ride is a condescending line at the start of the second verse: "I can't seem to smell or tell the difference/Between a pile of bull and a pile of politicians."
A lot of songwriters might shy away from writing it, and many of country's current crop of artists might prefer not to sing a line that seems to be drawn from the headlines. But as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders are making headway in presidential polls precisely because they're viewed as nonconformists, Nichols embraced the potential controversy in "Freaks Like Me." He practically spits out the word "politicians" with the sort of disdain Trump levels at his adversaries.
"Most everybody that I can think of are one of three things," explains Nichols. "Either you're on the left side of the political spectrum, you're on the right side of the political spectrum, or you hate 'em all. I think I'm kind of proud to say that none of them impress me."
Perhaps appropriately, "Freaks Like Me" owes its existence to a 4-year-old who wasn't worried about ruffling feathers. And Nichols' ability to record it is directly related to two label heads making the kind of compromise that Congress cannot.
"I'm very, very thankful to whoever said yes," says Nichols.
The first person to speak up in the "Freaks" chain was Audrey Criswell, who at age 4 (now 5) had gone with her grandmother to a Cracker Barrel. When a healthy male pushed his way ahead of them at an open door, Audrey spoke up to her grandma: "He's not much of a gentleman, is he?" Embarrassed, the man did hold the next door for the ladies. Later on, the story was related to the youngster's dad, songwriter Monty Criswell ("I Saw God Today," "Like Jesus Does").
Criswell took a bigger-picture view of the incident, noting how actions that people used to consider standard behavior -- opening a door for a woman, offering a seat to a senior citizen, not sharing private details in public situations -- are no longer employed by large chunks of the population. And he attached it to a title, "Freaks Like Me," that looks at the erosion of time-honored values with a certain irony.
"The majority of people have become the minority," says Criswell. "But I believe they're probably the majority still in country music."
Criswell carried that idea into an April 2015 songwriting session with Lynn Hutton ("Did It for the Girl") and singer-songwriter Josh Thompson at Sea Gayle Music in Nashville. "Freaks" wasn't the first topic they worked on at the session, but it was the one that clicked.
"We [spent] probably 15-20 minutes just playing with different ideas, and then he busted out with ‘Freaks Like Me,' " recalls Thompson. "I was wondering where that was 15 minutes before."
Hutton locked into a Waylon Jennings-like groove on guitar, and the first verse painted a picture of working-class Americans: the guy's expensive vehicle is a tractor, not a Jaguar; he drinks beer; and he loves Jesus. The character's conviction is evident in the chorus -- he's "out of style and damn proud" -- and the writers used the second verse to light their verbal fire.
Criswell introduced the thought that it's difficult at times to tell the difference between truth and fiction, and Thompson twisted that into the pile of bull and pile of politicians. They were already giving the song a little edge, but they went out further on a sonic limb, using a different melody in the back half of the stanza than they had created for the first verse.
"It's new info -- not just new lyrical information, but new musical information," says Hutton.
They built a work tape, lived with it a bit, then reassembled a week later to rewrite a couple of sections.
"We were literally there for maybe 30 minutes," says Thompson. "Then we played what we had again, and we're all like, ‘OK, it was done last week.'"
Session leader Ilya Toshinsky toned down the Jennings influence a bit but captured all the energy of the song when they cut the demo at Benchmark Studio, and Thompson sang the lead part at a later date. Once the demo was done, Thompson sent it to Justin Moore, who put it on hold for his next album.
"I stood up, and I was like, ‘This is a hit, this is a hit,' and I think everybody kind of agreed," says Nichols.
Cones texted the writers to put it on hold, only to discover Moore already had dibs on it. How serious was Moore about it? Cones started a dialogue with the publishers to find out. He checked back almost daily on Nichols' behalf, and his passion kept the conversation going. Talks wore on for weeks, and as they approached a June 22 session, Nichols worked on four other songs, assuming they wouldn't be able to pry "Freaks" loose.
Ultimately, Brown got in touch with Big Machine president/CEO Scott Borchetta, who owns both Moore's label and Thompson's publishing company. They reached an agreement: If Nichols nailed it well enough that it was a single, they could have the song. But if it wasn't going to get worked to radio, Moore would get it back.
All that happened just 45 minutes before the recording session was to begin at Westwood Sound, and when Nichols showed up to sing, he was shocked to discover the one song he hadn't rehearsed was suddenly the day's priority.
"I was like, ‘OK! Oh, crap!' I didn't want to mess the track up with me kind of fumbling and stumbling all over the lyric," he says.
Cones called in Hutton, who left another songwriting session to sing the scratch vocal with the studio musicians. Cones brought up Jerry Reed's "East Bound and Down" to the musicians, referencing the driving energy from that track. Troy Lancaster and Jeff King created some Southern rock-tinged, twin-guitar riffs, and drummer Lonnie Wilson and Mark Hill laid down a solid foundation. Cones later had Hill overdub extra cymbal parts to add an ambient urgency.
"There's an earthiness to this track," says Cones. "I wanted this to feel really live and really energetic."
Nichols came back the next day and delivered the final vocal, including that appropriately acerbic poke with the word "politicians."
"I tell him to sing it from the side of his mouth, like he's really trying to be country," says Cones, "and on those lines in particular, when he does a little cockeyed slant on ‘politicians,' it just kind of gives it a third dimension that jumps out of the speakers and adds more character."
Red Bow released "Freaks" to radio via Play MPE on Aug. 31, and it debuted at No. 29 on the Country Digital Songs chart dated Oct. 10. The performance itself gives a peek, according to Nichols, at what his next album will sound like. His last, Crickets, swung between traditional country sounds and highly produced tracks. Unlike the politicians it puts down, "Freaks Like Me" finds the middle ground.
"I'm not trying to be a rock guy and will never try to be a rock guy," says Nichols, "but I definitely want to have energy with what I do. If I can do that and still kind of feel like I'm maintaining a country soul, then I'm satisfied."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.