David Nail’s first two top 10s on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, “Red Light” (No. 7 in 2009) and “Let It Rain” (No. 1, 2011), were tortured breakup songs that required more than 40 weeks to reach their commercial peaks. “My wife would tell you that moody is probably my No. 1, most consistent quality,” he says, only half-jokingly. The singles’ follow-ups never made it past No. 20.
So when Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan settled into his role in early 2013, his message to Nail was simple: “I told him, ‘You’re awesome, but you can’t make a career out of these 50-week No. 1s. You’ve got to give me a little more tempo. You’ve got to come to the marketplace a little friendlier.'”
That’s exactly what Nail did with his third MCA album, “I’m a Fire,” due March 4. “Whatever She’s Got,” a breezy appreciation of a complicated woman, sets the tone, and it clearly connected with the audience. The song hits No. 1 on Country Airplay this week after reaching the top 10 in 29 weeks — a personal best for Nail — on Dec. 16, 2013. It sold 454,000 downloads between Sept. 30 and Dec. 29, according to Nielsen SoundScan, becoming the third-best-selling country single during the fourth quarter, topped only by Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Stay.”
Dungan’s request for a cheerier version of Nail couldn’t have been better timed. Months prior, Nail had come to realize he wasn’t completely whole. He had been in a long-term funk, which he’d written off as collateral damage of a career in music. But it went deeper.
“I’ve been severely depressed for probably the majority of my career,” Nail says. “For the longest time, I always assumed that was from a lack of success or struggling. When I realized that wasn’t necessarily the reason, I could stand back and realign my life and re-prioritize some things.”
His latest hit “opened a window” to a different kind of material, Nail says. Armed with the song’s new, sunnier outlook, he worked faster and more focused than he had for previous albums, recording the set in less than three months, leaning on guitars, rather than piano, as the foundation. Songs like “Kiss You Tonight” and “Easy Love” are lighter than earlier material, and the album uses faster tempos, though there aren’t any outright barnburners. Even Nail’s Twitter bio now says, “Sad no more.”
He helped set up the album, in part, by emphasizing radio station visits, much like new artists do, and broadcasters were impressed with what they saw.
“Radio had found him to be aloof,” Dungan says. “But they were all calling me right away and going, ‘Wow, what a completely different guy, and what an awesome guy.’ And I’m going, ‘Well, he’s really smart, he’s really funny, and he knows everything about baseball.’ He’s an engaging guy wherever you go, but he had to get comfortable with himself.”
“Brand New Day” — co-written by Nail with Scooter Carusoe and Shane McAnally — hints at the transformation: “I’ve made it through the rebound/The past ain’t draggin’ me down.”
That same message is behind the album’s title. There’s a minor lyrical theme throughout-one of its most passionate cuts is the liquor-and-love snapshot “Burnin’ Bed” — but beneath that, “I’m a Fire” is carried by Nail’s personal and professional renewal.
“The title had a lot of meanings from an artist’s standpoint,” he says, “but also from the standpoint of a man who’s been through his share of trials and tribulations, but, like a fire, is still burning through it all.”