(CSC) 1. Great to be with you! Having experienced Platinum success and two #1 singles with “Crickets,” were you a bit apprehensive returning to the studio with “Never Gets Old” after a four-year break in between recording?
Uh, yeah! Antsy and apprehensive. When you spend that much time making a record, there's a lot of second guessing, because we changed directions four or five times and finally had to settle on the best ten to thirteen songs. So, when you narrow down the album like that from sixteen to eighteen songs, and you feel great about all of them, it can be scary because you think, “Man, what if I just cut away something that Blake Shelton is going to have a hit on tomorrow?” That can be very scary.
But at the end of the day, we wanted to make it appeal to the traditional country fan base out there, yet still touch what radio's doing. Songs like “Breathless,” “Tall Boys” and “Girl in a Song” ... Those are songs that are kind of meant to touch on the younger fan base that is still very strong in the country music world.
(CSC) 2. You’ve said that returning to the same approach from the early days of your career has been a full circle moment. Looking back, how has the Joe Nichols of then improved as a singer and songwriter to the Joe Nichols of today?
I think I was a hard-headed a-hole! There's no other way to put it! I didn't want to listen to anybody. I had my own idea of how we were going to go forward, and I really didn’t want to hear ideas about how to change things or how to adapt. I just wanted to make old 1960s and 1950s records that would sound like my heroes. But at the same time could hopefully be timeless. I think nowadays I still have the timeless thing in my mind, but I'm open to hearing I'm not the smartest guy in the room.
(CSC) 3. It is so refreshing to hear authentic old-school country songs on this new record! As an artist, how do you manage to stay true to yourself, while keeping up with the ever-changing trends on radio?
It's really tough. It's an uphill battle with anything that’s traditional, and I think the demographic with country music is driven by sixteen to twenty-five-year-old females and even sixteen to twenty-five-year-old males. They weren't alive when I was growing up on the music that influenced me, so it's hard to get them to connect with what I feel passionate about. But sometimes they do. I've seen a lot of college kids really kind of branch out and take the chance or take the initiative to go out and buy our records – actual records – and learn some of the old history of music.
That’s what I think is all behind the resurgence of traditional country music. Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson… I think those guys are having success because younger crowds are going, "Man, there was some great stuff made then and these guys are making probably even better records!" And you know, why not? It fits my life style. I love the content, I love the talent.
So, like I said; it's really hard. It's an uphill battle. It takes a long time to get a single to break through in a lot of more urban cities with huge country stations. It's understandable. There's a lot of places that play a lot of country music. But you know, it’s tough getting real traditional country songs to be played a lot there; it can be a bit of a of battle, because you have to have something that pushes you into statistics where they believe it will make a difference. You know what I mean? To change their mind, it takes some kind of data, some type of information to show somebody who doesn’t necessarily believe that it will work.
(CSC) 4. The title track “Never Gets Old” is reminiscent of the music of the late Don Williams. How much of an influence was Don on your career? Can you share with us your feelings on the recent losses of Don Williams and Troy Gentry?
I'll start with Don. You know, it seemed like he lived a long time in doing a very enviable style of music which is front porch country. It's not complicated, it's not something you have to put on for people. It's something that you walk out onto the stage, sit on a stool, put your feet up on your monitor and you just sing your songs and that’s good enough. You know he was just such a good poet. And more than that, I think he was such a good philosopher. Whether he wrote it, whether he sang it; he brought an element to country music that wasn't there before, besides a guy like Merle Haggard.
Philosophy and country music has been a little tricky, you know? A guy like John Denver had a little trouble because he was outside of what the mainstream was. I think his voice was so endearing. He had such a soothing voice, and people loved whatever he said before the end of the song. So, in my mind, in my world, I've always said this about every interview I've ever done, “I have a top five who’ve influenced me. It's hard to put just the top five together; but George Strait, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis, Don Williams and Keith Whitley.
Those guys have been the biggest influences on me for different reasons. Not that I think Don Williams would out sing anybody, but I wanted to capture what he made the crowd do which was feel comfortable enough to like him no matter what he did. And his philosophy, the things that he said, were smart. It wasn't dumbed up enough for the masses to latch onto a certain hooky melody (Joe sings a bit of “Good Ole Boys Like Me”). People will have to Google who Uncle Remus was today and then a lot of references in that song. That’s what I loved about him; he was so philosophical, so smart that he was beyond most country songs and most country artists for his time. Eric Clapton was a huge fan of Don Williams, and that says probably all you need to know.
I've become a fan and a friend of Troy over the last ten or twelve years. When we first started, they were also just getting started, and they had a lot of success early on. They were rowdy and they were friendly, but they were so loud and going ninety miles an hour that it was really hard to get to know somebody like that on a personal level. But as the years have gone on, you know he and I both have kind of slowed down a little bit in that area of our lives, and he's become a friend. He was always very, especially like I said in the last ten years, he was always very thoughtful and always very engaging and always wanted to know how you were doing before you said anything. "How are you?" "How can we help?" "What's going on with this?" "I heard about this, can I help?" And that’s truly a person that grows. He was that guy that you had an opinion of fourteen years ago, and you do a 180 because this guy has changed your mind completely. Hopefully I can be that kind of person too. But it's hard to do. He accomplished that.
(CSC) 5. How cool was it being able to finally record a video for your country cover of “Baby Got Back” with rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot? I know you’ve been performing this song for quite a while in your live shows!
Well that sort of snowballed. It was just for fun and then it became a thing! One day, at one point in the show, five, six, seven years ago, I would give the band a break for a song or two. I would just sit up there with my guitar and I would play maybe two or three songs different every night. Most of the time it would just be me. I would just play guitar and sing and sometimes the band would join in and help me finish out the set. It was a fun deal. It kind of showcased me and it kind of let them have a breather, and all the focus became about me instead of the show.
At one point one day, we were at a festival. I think in Arizona maybe, and I was on the bus and I thought what if I screwed with the band right now? What if I had a little sideways action for them that they would go, “What is wrong with him?” So, I learned a few words of the song (sings) "I like big butts and I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny" And so I learned about three lines of that song, but the band kicked in before I could stop the song and so the joke was on me (laughs) and the band was like, “Come on keep it going!”
So, the next day we all had to get together and I had to learn a lot of words because that song has a ton of words. I only cover about a tenth of the song and it’s a two minute and twenty-second song now with only a tenth of the words. But the band helped with that and it stuck because when I did that, it was meant to be funny and break the ice with the crowd. I was doing acoustic. It was at a festival and so people are drinking beer and they're kind of looking, and they're like oh well! You’re singing up there and you're having a good time, and you're really not having a party yet, but when I did that the people went nuts. They came alive! And so, it said to me, “This is something we can do beyond today.” We can do this every show and surprise people and it would be something in the show nobody would ever expect. And so, we did it the next night, and we kept doing it every night since.
I guess Mix had somebody in the crowd a couple of years after that when we played close to Seattle, and he had a friend that called him during the middle of the show and held his cell phone up and he said "You got to listen to this!"
What he said to me was really cool. He said "I love this version more than any version I've heard as a cover because this version has everything to do with the lyrics, but nothing copies me on this song. You made it totally you… and I respect that kind of thing more than anything in music; as a publisher and as a writer."
And so, we did that for four or five years. When we were making this album, we were on our last session with Mickey Jack Cones, and we had about an hour to spare for our last session, and he said, “Man, we cut the last two and we have an hour to spare. We have the players here and we have the charts done. We don't have to give them something complicated that they have to learn for an hour. Just throw that three or four chords in the studio and let em roll! They'll love it! Let em fly! Let that steel guitar player roll!” And he did. I was so happy that we even got to try it.
I was thinking the record label will never go for this. They'll think, “God you've wasted money!” Which we didn't. We were still spending. You know, we just hadn't spent all the money anyway. This was a freebie almost. So, I got in the studio and did my scratch vocal, and later that day I did the actual vocal here on the record.
It came time to narrow the songs down to the record. I was shocked that the record label said we've got to put "Baby Got Back" on here and I was like, God I would've never had thought that a label would take me seriously on something that is so out of the box. But they did. They did a really good job of sitting behind me and taking a chance on something that could be an out of the box success, or visibility success.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Joe in November 2017!
Be sure to like Joe Nichols on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JoeNichols/
Special thanks to Veronica Scalise for her assistance during the interview and to Donna Stroup and Matt W. for their editing skills with the interview!