By Matt Hickman
No type of music suffers an ongoing identity crisis quite like country music.
For decades, artists and critics have been falling over themselves in lamentation of whatever happened to REAL country?
There was plenty of that talk back in 2002 when 25-year-old Arkansas boy Joe Nichols burst onto the season with his platinum debut album ‘Man with a Memory’, as there was two years later when he came out with his second No. 1 single ‘Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off’.
Back then, the enemy of the traditionalists was too many songs crossing over into pop radio, while today, the scourge is the sensation known derisively as ‘Bro’ country, with its hyper-produced tracks of songs that tend to follow more of a Jimmy Buffet ethos than anything Merle Haggard or Hank Williams would own.
“I’m more a traditional guy,” Nichols said by phone Wednesday morning ahead of his Sunday flight from Dallas to Anchorage for a weeklong tour of Alaska, his first visit here since 2004. “A lot of people that are country singers today are really talented and fantastic, but the thing I do is old school, a throwback to the old Merle Haggard stuff, old George Jones stuff.”
Nichols objection to ‘Bro’ country, isn’t necessarily with the concept itself, but rather how easily it can be homogenized and spoil the genre as a whole.
“Like any other genre, there’s a turning point from quality to commercial ability. I think we’re kind of in a place where we’ve caught a sound that connects with a crowd, kind of like the 80s glam rock, hair bands really kind of drove it into the ground,” Nichols said. “You had 27,000 bands that sounded exactly alike, playing the same song and driving the sound into the ground. Then in the 90s, Cobain and Vedder and the Seattle sound changed the landscape of rock music and everybody forgot the hair bands in 10 minutes… Here we are in 2019 with ‘Bro’ country and I fear in five years there’s going to be such a turnoff to that.”
It could be argued, though, that Nichols himself was an inspiration and forerunner to the ‘Bro’ country movement. His 2005 chart-topper helped make tequila — not beer or whiskey — the spirit of choice of the country stud, which paved the way for sandy beaches replacing country roads as the preferred setting.
“I guess that’s pretty accurate, but gosh, there’s only so many things you can sing about in country music. We’ve been singing about beer for 80 years and alcohol is a big part of country music,” Nichols said. “I guess you could sing a song about Jameson Whiskey, or, I don’t think there’s too many songs about scotch… if something works.”
In his nearly 20 years of stardom, Nichols has had his share of battles with drugs and alcohol, checking into rehab in 2007.
“I don’t know that the lifestyle of a country singer made me have a problem with alcohol; I think it was the opposite — I had a problem with alcohol and it went hand-in-hand with what I do for a living,” Nichols said. “Being a musician, an artist always on the road there’s always a party so it’s kind of hard to pull back from. But I want to make music the rest of my life, so I need to focus and be more serious.”
Nichols is currently in the studio working on a new album. He says he’s got three tracks complete and he’ll be playing a number of his new pieces on his Alaska journey, which starts Wednesday night at at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. When complete, he says, this traditional album will remind his fans more of ‘Man with a Memory’, which included his first No. 1 single ‘Brokenheartsville’, than any of his releases in the last 10 to 12 years.
“I’ve changed in a few different ways over the last 17 years — some good, some bad,” Nichols said. “I think I’m probably more aware now of what sets me apart — not better, not less than, just what’s different about me from other artists — I’m on a bit more of a mission to hone that a little better. The first couple of albums I think I was trying to fit in with what’s on the radio and now I’m more about making something quality.”
Nichols said the key to writing a good country song is telling a good, coherent story.
“Believability,” Nichols said. “That’s the No. 1 thing if the artist delivers with conviction. Harlan Howard always said country music is three chords and the truth and that’s pretty much it. If it’s believable and even if it’s the same story told in a unique way, it’s probably a good song.”
Nichols has set himself apart from other songwriters by playing with meters and throwing in rapid-fire rhymes, maybe best exhibited in the chorus of ‘Brokenheartsville’, which goes:
I think the devil drives a Coup de Ville
I watched them drive away over the hill
Not against her will, I’ve got time to kill
Down in Brokenheartsville
“You gotta look at whether things make sense,” Nichols said. “A lot of times you can get caught up in whether it sounds catcha. ‘What’s a Guy to Do?’ for instance, has catchy little melodies but you’ve got to make sense with a story.”
After his show Wednesday night in Anchorage to kick off Erickson Unlimited Productions’ seventh Backyard Country BBQ Tour, Nichols heads to Soldotna for a show on June 28 and then plays Fairbanks — the only Alaska spot he visited back in 2004 — for a show at The Spur on June 29.
“I’ve been working on some new material and some great songs — hopefully it connects as much as it feels good to me… This is the first time I’ve played brand new stuff in a week or two.”
That said, the playlist will still be chock-full of Nichols’ hits and covers from a more traditional era of country music.
“My jokes are pretty lame but hopefully everybody has a good time,” Nichols said of his Alaska dates. “We’re going to play some old school, some throwback and some new music I’m really excited about. It should be a comforting, relaxing good time.”