Over the course of his two-decade career, Joe Nichols has covered songs originally recorded by such country stalwarts as Waylon Jennings and Gene Watson. Add to his list of artists covered……Sir Mix-A-Lot.
Yes, the 1992 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Baby Got Back” appears on the country singer’s new album Never Gets Old. However, you might not recognize it. The song is turned into a country shuffle – complete with a hilarious introduction from comedian Darren Knight and his “Southern Momma” character that revamps the iconic spoken-word parts of the single. The singer tells Billboard that the track made the album after years of performing it in his stage show – exactly in the shuffle-sounding way it appears on the new album.
“It started as a joke,” the singer says playfully. “At one point in the show a couple of years ago, I would start playing a song with just me and a guitar. Sometimes, the band would come in, and finish it out with the last verse and chorus, and sometimes they wouldn’t. I just figured I would do something a little bit off the wall. I just hit a D chord, and went into it. It was a country version, more like a shuffle. My band wasn’t shocked at all, they just joined right in and picked it up, so the joke was very much on me. But, each time we played it, the crowd would go crazy. I think the country demographic now is very familiar with early ’90s pop and rap. So the song was familiar to everybody, and the shock of it sounding so country put it over the top. Having a few years of playing it live, and it going over so well made us think ‘What the heck?’ We cut it, and the musicians were laughing and having a good time with it. It’s just a fun track, a little off the wall, and definitely a little goofball-ish, but it’s definitely a light moment for the album.”
That one track aside, the rest of Never Gets Old runs toward the traditional spectrum of the country format – where Nichols resided with his first several albums. He felt it was time to return to that sound.
“We’ve been working on it for about four years,” he confesses. “The process has taken a little bit, but it’s definitely a traditional country record. I have roots in traditional country. It was really important for me to do songs like ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’ and put them on this record. I really wanted to make this album this time around – not that I’ve ever been anything but country. I really wanted to be earthy country again like the first album. We spent a lot of time getting things just right with vocals and instrumentation. It took a lot of courage and a lot of guts on the part of a lot of people to go back to a really traditional kind of sound. I feel that country music is kind of shifting, and I think it’s a good time to be free about that. For me, it feels like less of a stretch to go back and get traditional.”
But Nichols isn’t trying in any way to make a statement about the overall direction of the genre – this musical switch back to the early sound of hits like “The Impossible” and “Brokenheartsville” is strictly about him. “It doesn’t have to go any further than me. For me, it’s important to remember why I’m so passionate about country music. I grew up listening to Merle Haggard from my earliest memories. That’s what I fell in love with all those years ago. I wanted to get back to that, for my own passion. It feels great to be doing music with that kind of purpose again, like I was a child.”
The title cut was one that Nichols was excited to cut – particularly after a certain family member gave her okay. “I was nervous about playing that one for my wife, Heather. I remember that we were at Target, and I put the song on. About halfway through the first verse, she says ‘I like it.’ So, we decided that would be a good one. She’s usually the bar on what we cut. She’s usually got a good ear for that kind of stuff, so I’m glad she likes it.”
Nichols sounds like a man who is totally content to be where he is in life as a husband and a father. His three daughters share his deep love of the University of Arkansas and their mascot, the Razorbacks, despite his good-natured worrying about his oldest daughter’s “defection” across the Mississippi. “She is going to be a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, which makes her conflicted at times, but I believe she does have an affinity toward the Razorbacks. Of course, my two youngest ones just like the way it sounds, and they’ve got a funny pronunciation of it sometimes. It can be Woo Pa Pa or Woo Pow,” he says of the famous hog call “Woo Pig Sooie.” “But I think they all like the ‘Red Rat,’ as they call it.”
Nichols makes one of his strongest statements on the thought-provoking track “We All Carry Something,” of which he says “I can understand where this would be a little bit scary for some people, but this album had to have this song on there to be one of those deep moments. The song, to me, is a message that rings completely true for me. I’m sure it does for a lot of people. But, you never know what somebody is dragging around with them, what kind of pain they are going through, or the experiences they’ve had that makes them who they are. The last verse – about the guy who carried the cross up that hill for all of us. It’s a really powerful message.”
With a shift in his sound, Billboard asked Nichols what it was about country music as a genre that originally grabbed him as a child. “I don’t know if ‘realness’ is the way to describe it, but there’s the real feel of the lyric, and the story of the song. It’s an everyday life kind of genre. It’s not about living in mansions and flying around in jets. It’s about what we all go through every day. Sometimes, it’s good to feel a little sad – and it’s sad to feel a little good. It’s stories that are in everyday life that are painful or joyful. That makes it real to me. I related to the simple stories and powerful messages. It’s good to have people that are humble that write their life experiences, and change other people’s lives. The lyrics are what I think makes country music an everlasting genre – real everyday lyrics.”
Who were some of those artists that drew him into the format? “I’m a big Don Williams fan, and a big Randy Travis fan. I loved ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me,’ and ‘Lord I Hope This Day Is Good,’ ‘You’re My Best Friend’ – those songs have a special meaning to me. They put me in a state of mind that not many songs or singers do. With Randy, his hits are always going to be special, but one song that I’m always going to be fond of was called ‘Promises.’ It’s one of my dad’s favorites, and one of mine. Those songs get me every time I hear them.
A track that will be very familiar to listeners is “Diamonds Make Babies,” a song that Chris Stapleton co-wrote that appeared on Dierks Bentley’s 2012 disc Home. He says the song simply makes him chuckle. “It’s a funny message, but so true. It’s a fun message for men and women. It’s true. It starts with a little ring, and then you have a family before you know it. I’ve always liked those songs that are tongue-in-cheek a little bit, but have a little half-truth. I love that kind of stuff. Everything about it made me happy. It makes for a great sounding part of the record, and has the potential to be a single.”
2017 marks the fifteenth anniversary of his hit “The Impossible,” which kick-started his career. “I’ve got the best fans – and not just in country music, but all music. They have been great to me. They’re loyal and honest, and have kept me going. I appreciate their loyalty and appreciation for what I do.”
That appreciation includes coming to Nichols’ concerts, and buying his music and merchandise. What is the most unusual piece of Joe Nichols swag at the merch table? “We’ve got these new things – these giant guitar picks. They are made of aluminum and have a picture of me on them, Obviously, you can’t play guitar with them, but they are very cool. It’s like a pick plaque. I’ve never seen anything like it. We just started selling them at the merch table, and they are one of a kind.”
Never Gets Old will be released July 28 on Red Bow Records.