It’s a Thursday afternoon in Nashville and Joe Nichols is escaping the summer sun in the cool, dark confines of Westwood Studios. Ensconced there with producers Mickey Jack Cones and Derek George, as well as some of Music City’s top session musicians, Nichols is likely feeling a different kind of heat. He’s working on his Oct. 8 debut for Red Bow Records, a new imprint under the Broken Bow Records umbrella that launched last fall with Nichols as its first signing.
“The label’s ideas for the future are pretty much in sync with mine,” the 37-year-old artist says. “They want me to be newer, fresher, younger, and there’s a reason for that. Over the years, people have gotten the idea that I’m much older than I am. I’ve never really referenced youth a lot in my music, but it’s time to be young while I’m still young. My mission is to let everybody know that I’m still a young guy and expand my sound a little bit and make everything new, fresh and current.”
Nichols first charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 2002 with the No. 3 hit “The Impossible” on Universal South, and followed with the No. 1 “Brokenheartsville.” He’s since charted 20 singles, including the No. 1s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and “Gimme That Girl.” Now, “Sunny and 75,” the lead single from new album “Crickets,” is No. 31.
“There will definitely be some songs on here that people expect from Joe, but there will be things that they don’t as well, and ‘Sunny and 75’ is the perfect example,” Broken Bow Records Music Group senior VP Jon Loba says. “We had originally figured that this would be a first-quarter  album release. Looking at the progression of Joe’s song, this has moved much quicker than we thought, and sales-wise it’s connected much quicker and bigger than we had expected, so we moved the album up.”
Nichols first thought “Sunny and 75” might be too big a leap for his traditional base. “The label felt very strongly about ‘Sunny and 75’ being a statement song,” Nichols says. “As the first single off this record it will let everybody know there’s a new sound. Obviously they’ve proved themselves right with the instant success we’ve had.”
Cones, George and veteran producer Tony Brown are handling production duties on the new album. “Joe is one of the best vocalists to ever come out of this town,” Cones says. “He’s known and admired by his fans and peers for his natural ability to deliver an ‘old-school country song’ but isn’t afraid to push, or even overstep, the new-school boundaries. And that’s exactly what we have captured on this record.”
On this particular afternoon, Nichols is working on a couple of different songs with Cones, George and noted musicians like bassist Jimmy Lee Sloas, drummer Lonnie Wilson, guitarist Biff Watson and keyboardist Tony Harrell. “Open Up a Can” is a Dallas Davidson-penned tune that Nichols makes his own. “The hardest challenge with a Dallas Davidson demo is to make it as cool as that,” Nichols says. “There are several writers that are like that. They sound so great, it’s hard to be up to the challenge of beating what they did.”
Broken Bow founder Benny Brown stops by the studio, a gesture Nichols appreciates. “Benny is very involved,” Nichols says. “Normally I would feel pressure, but Benny isn’t a pressure type of guy. He’s down to earth and lets people do their thing. I love that about him. Everybody knows he’s the boss, but I don’t get that feeling from him. Benny is here as part of the team.”
The label head is also known for finding songs. “‘She’s So Hot It’s Hard to Be Cool’ is one Benny played for us the night before we tracked,” Nichols says. “It’s finishing out well. It’s really a fun song.”
Nichols and Loba admit “Crickets” is an unusual choice for an album title. “When Benny first brought that up, the tone in the room was crickets,” Loba says. “Someone said, ‘That’s a horrible name for a record,’ and Benny said, ‘Hang with me. There’s four different songs on this record that have a reference to crickets. It was never planned. Songs just kept getting pitched and coming in. It’s a great topic of conversation too. No one would think you’d name an album ‘Crickets,’ so let’s do it.’ Joe was good with it and said, ‘Let’s roll the dice.'”