Down in Nashville, on the north side of Broadway at Fifth, is a spot where fate has wrought a symbolic convergence in the career of country artist Joe Nichols. "If you stand there and look out across Broadway," Nichols explains, "you'll see where Brian and I started with an acoustic thing at a place called Rippy's." He's referring to a ribs and beer joint he played with best friend and current guitar player Brian Spradlin as recently as March of 2002. "On the opposite corner is the Gaylord Entertainment Center," where Nichols opened for Alan Jackson in November of that same year. "Behind you, over the top of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, you can see the Ryman Auditorium," the setting for Nichols' first Grand Ole Opry performance, barely a month later. "And if you look down Broadway, you can see the Nashville Coliseum," home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans and country music's Fan Fair festival, at which Nichols performed in the summer of 2003.
In less than 18 months Joe Nichols went from playing for dozens of people on the cramped stage of a local eatery to performing for tens of thousands in a massive outdoor stadium. Amidst this notable ascension Nichols became the debut artist for a new record label, Universal South. His first two singles, "The Impossible" and "Brokenheartsville," became multi-week No. 1 hits. And his album, Man With A Memory, was certified Gold for sales in excess of 500,000 units. The journey is even more remarkable for its twice-over defiance of convention. First, Nichols has built this success upon an unfettered allegiance to country tradition that's as direct as his chiseled baritone. Secondly, he's done it despite the frighteningly long odds new country artists have faced for the last half-dozen years.
"It's been a constant rise from single to single," Nichols says. "The ride hasn't slowed down a bit." Yet he's mindful that his accomplishments are not an end unto themselves, but the means to get where he's going. Despite the comparisons already being drawn, he is still but an aspirant to the lineage of his heroes--men with names like Jones, Haggard, Robbins, Travis and Jackson. In short, Joe Nichols isn't caught up in his own success. He may be the only one.
The Academy of Country Music named Nichols its Top New Male Vocalist of 2003. Country Music Television named "Brokenheartsville" the year's Breakthrough Video. He was voted Best New Artist of 2003 by the readers of Radio & Records. Billboard Magazine tapped him as Top New Country Artist of 2002, with "The Impossible" certified as the No. 10 most played song of the year. Music Row magazine bestowed upon him its prestigious Critics' Pick award, and he was nominated for three Grammy Awards--Best Country Album, Best Country Male Vocal Performance and Best Country Song, for "The Impossible."
For all the accolades, Nichols bears a maturity of perspective that belies his 26 years. "We're at a crossroads," he says. "We can level out and be a B-level act for a while, or we can continue to work our 'you-know-whats' off until we're headlining. It's kind of up to me what the future will be. If we can keep the momentum of the past year going without getting burnt out by the pressure and falling to the hype, everything will be fine. We can continue on this road and build steadily song to song, album to album." Therein, perhaps, is the justification for viewing Nichols as heir to country greatness. That simplicity of focus, that reliance on talent and determination to produce consistent musical excellence over a period of years and albums, is the hallmark of the artists to whom Nichols has always aspired.
Raised in the small town of Rogers, Arkansas, Nichols was born with the music of his forebears in his veins. While high school peers followed early nineties hair bands and grunge, he immersed himself in the classic country favored by his grandfather, uncles and father, and played by the Nichols men in local VFW halls. Neo-traditionalists like Randy Travis and Alan Jackson soon became role models. With his ambition forged early, and possessing of an uncommonly advanced vocal instrument, Nichols secured an independent label country deal at the tender age of 19. A modicum of chart success notwithstanding, Nichols wasn't ready for that early break, and subsequent major label deals never bore fruit. Forced into odd jobs and low-paying gigs like the one at Rippy's, he struggled to fend off a reconciliation between his dream and reality, and came close to giving up. During this difficult period, his friend Spradlin introduced Nichols to Brent Rowan, celebrated Nashville session guitarist, aspiring producer and musical kindred spirit. Their collaboration eventually led them to Tony Brown and Tim DuBois, two of Music Row's most influential executives who were in the process of forming a joint venture label with Universal.
So impressed were Brown and DuBois that Man With A Memory became Universal South's first release. The kind of stripped-to-basics offering that's more difficult to create than it sounds, the album relies on a simple formula-great songs, played straight up and sung convincingly by an unmistakably distinct country vocalist. Not content to let his creation find it's own way, Nichols worked tirelessly with his label and on the road, bringing his music to the fans. "It helps that my first deal didn't work," he says. "That kind of failure motivates you to never be in that spot again. So I'm doing everything I can to make this record successful. Making sure everyone on the team is happy, putting in a call or dropping a note when it's needed. Doing another show if there's a city we need to play."
As his star rose, so did expectations. Nichols was confronted with meeting those expectations, or in some cases upsetting them. "The momentum was so big during and right after 'The Impossible' made its run, people were wondering what 'Brokenheartsville' would do. If it would fall off. It didn't, and actually went a little further than 'The Impossible.' That pressure goes away naturally as long as you continue to be successful.
"The music's my focus," Nichols says. "The overwhelming reaction we get from fans on the road is the most gratifying part of all this. It's a great compliment every night."
Working in the present and preparing for the road ahead, Joe Nichols isn't the type to rest on his laurels. But if he ever gets the urge to reminisce, he can just run down to Broadway and Fifth...and look around.
--- from the official Joe Nichols website