What is the cost of being yourself? For Joe Nichols, we may never know.
When I discussed Toby Keith’s career last month, I concluded that it was the public that really made his career: When he made the music that they wanted, he was popular, and when he made the music he wanted…not so much. Keith, however, was one of the lucky ones: He earned enough money and garnered enough popularity to solidify both his back account and his place in country music history. Nichols, however, was not so lucky, and it led to the conundrum that Sam points out here:
It’s true that Nichols succumbed to the Bro-Country monster that devoured so many artists in the early 2010s. The incident, however, sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of his discography and his public statements, which suggest a strong devotion to traditional country music. So how does a guy go from the new face of the old-school to just another sell-out on the radio? The answer, it seems, is that “old-school” is often a euphemism for “stuff no one wants to hear anymore,” and when nobody’s buying what you’re selling, you either adapt or starve.
A Rough Start
Label instability seems to be a common thread in these deep dives, and that certainly holds true with Nichols. I considered Man With A Memory to be his “debut” album when it appeared in 2002, but his actual major-label debut came six years earlier, in the form of a self-titled debut disc on the independent Intersound label. It generated zero radio hits and miserable sales, and he was unceremoniously dropped from Intersound’s roster not long afterwards. (Given that Intersound was not much of a country label, that it was purchased by Platinum Entertainment the same year Nichols’s record came out, and that Platinum itself entered bankruptcy just four years later, I imagine that Nichols did not have much of a marketing or A&R team behind him.) Nichols moved on to Nashville and eventually landed on the Giant Records roster, but after the label passed on releasing his work and eventually got folded into the Warner label, Nichols ended up leaving without so much as a single to show for it.
A couple of things stand out from Nichols’s early career (or lack thereof). First, if you go back and listen to songs from his debut disc, he comes across as a very conventional country artist, the sort that you found all over the radio back in the mid 1990s. In the video for “Six Of One, Half Dozen Of The Other,” Nichols’s long hair, open coat, and cowboy hat bring to mind a young Trace Adkins:
Second, Nichols mentioned that after Warner consumed Giant, it was a dispute over artistic direction that drove him to leave, as Warner wanted him to be “more poppy.” A more pliant artist (especially at that stage of their career) would likely have swallowed their pride and done the label’s bidding, but Nichols walked away instead to try to find greener pastures. It seems that at the time, Nichols had a vision of one sort of star he wanted to be, and he was willing to take some risks to get there. Still, burning that many years unproductively left Nichols a bit behind his peers when he finally got his big break.
Failure To Launch
Things finally started to go Nichols’s way upon joining Universal South Records in 2002. Man With A Memory was a revelation at radio, and it earned Nichols his first #1 single (“Brokenheartsville”), his first (and only) platinum album, and a round of hosannas from the country music community. The album is noticeably slicker and more polished than Nichols’s debut, but the traditional elements were still present and accounted for, and the result was a stellar album that I still go back to occasionally even now. With this sort of buzz, Nichols looked poised to launch into the stratosphere
And then…he just didn’t.
2004’s Revelation was a decent enough, but it only got two singles and neither made it higher than #4 on the charts. III‘s novelty leadoff single “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” (which has not aged well, to say the least) got Nichols back to #1, but it would take another six singles and four years before he repeated the feat with 2009’s “Gimme That Girl.” While artists like Brad Paisley were visited the #1 slot with regularity, Nichols was carving out what could best be described as a nice little career, similar to Toby Keith’s early years with Mercury. What the heck happened?
The best explanation that I can find is that Nichols basically shot himself in the foot with his own bad behavior. Nichols himself cites two issues that plagued him during this time: A lack of maturity, and the death of his father:
“I think my maturity had stopped at 22 or 23. I had success come my way, and I still treated it if I was a teenager. I had too much fun. I was a little too pampered. It’s a blessing for me, and I didn’t appreciate it enough.” —Nichols, as told to Jeff Niesel, 2017
” In 2002, as Nichols’ single “The Impossible,” from his second record Man with a Memory, began climbing the charts, his father passed away from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. It led to a period of self-medication and distress for Nichols, remedied by rehab and work…”I became less of a happy person for a long period of time,” [Nichols] says. “I kind of built up this sick little resentment, like ‘How can you people want to be a part of me without even knowing who I am?'” —K. C. Libman, Phoenix New Times, 2015
“The singers cites his parents divorce, abuse from his father and an early addiction to whiskey at age 13 as the foundation for this troubled ways.” —Cory Stromblad, Taste Of Country, 2012
The tale of the self-destructing artist is as old as time itself, but from a musical perspective it didn’t seem to alter Nichols’s artistic vision. The songs from this period still exhibit the same traditional bent…at least, they did until 2009, when “Gimme That Girl” brought in a lot more contemporary elements (choppy electric guitars, no steel guitar, etc.). The bigger issue was that the public simply didn’t seem to buy what Nichols was selling: Between “Tequila…” and “Gimme That Girl,” Nichols has as many singles that missed the Top 15 as he did that reached the Top 10. By 2009, Nichols had been recording for thirteen years and stuck in a downward spiral for seven (Taste of Country references “several stints in rehab”), his last few singles had been flops, and his career was a shell of what it had been in 2002. As dedicated as Nichols claimed he was to traditional country music, the man was in desperation mode, and as Little Big Town showed us, desperate artists tend to compromise their ideals for a shot at success.
2009 was also the year that Show-Dog and Universal South merged into a single label, so it’s not inconceivable that some of Nichols’s new bosses encouraged him to pursue a trendier sound. The merge happened two months after “Gimme That Girl” was released, but the shift in tone was noticeable: 2011’s “Take It Off” (the first single from a post-merger album) was ripped straight from the Bro-Country party-time playbook. The lack of success, however, led to Nichols’s move to Red Bow Records in 2012.
You know what happened next:
Turncoat or Turning Point?
“Sunny And 75” was far from the worst offender of this era, but it certainly some bore of its hallmarks: The laundry-list songwriting, the devil-may-care celebratory attitude, the generic guitar-and-drum sound, and so on. (In contrast, “Yeah” actually was one of the worst offenders of the era.) Both songs went to #1 and breathed life into Nichols’s career, but it also earned Nichols a lot of criticism for the obvious heel turn, and the high wore off quick: “Hard To Be Cool” stalled at #22, and Nichols has yet to crack the Top Forty ever since.
Why did he do it? According to him, it wasn’t because he wanted to:
“If I could just make the record I wanted to make, I’d hire the country-est guys in Nashville,” Joe Nichols, who has achieved five No 1 hits on country radio since 2002, told Rolling Stone last week. “Kenny Sears, Opry members, the Time Jumpers, maybe Vince Gill to come sing. And we’d make a country record that probably wouldn’t get sold at all.” Nichols claimed that he’d love to record music with “lots of twin fiddles, steel guitars, country shuffles and western swing … But I’m not that rich.” —As reported by Grady Smith, The Guardian, 2015
Honestly, I’m inclined to believe him here. He was a veteran artist trying to resurrect his career on a new label, and said label likely said “Our way or the highway.” At that point, Nichols hadn’t given up on a truly successful mainstream career, and so he took the easy way out. Still, whether or not he truly wanted to sing these songs, he did sing them, and he’ll have to own that for the rest of his career.
Nothing To Lose
So why is Nichols back to his raving traditionalist ways now? Why is he calling country music “fickle” and claiming that “the nostalgia of traditional country music is important” on his way out the door from the BBR Music Group? I would argue that it’s the “older artist” issue at work, but not in the way you’d expect.
BBR likely shed few years when Nichols walked out the door, but it doesn’t seem like Nichols is too sad about the whole thing either. After over twenty years in the business, Nichols finally let go of his superstar dreams and landed in the “eff you, I’ll do what I want” phase of his career, declaring that “at this point my goal is feel good about what I do, provide for my family and be here as long as I can. Quit when I wanna quit.” His final album Never Gets Old is a semi-reversion to his original sound, with a more acoustic foundation and a few more classical instruments thrown into the mix. That’s fine and all, but people still don’t seem to be interested in his musical vision (or are still feeling betrayed over his Bro-Country dalliance), and thus Nichols now finds himself on the outside looking in, and he’s made his peace with that.
So have we seen the last of Joe Nichols in mainstream country? I’m not ready to write him off just yet: The sonic trends are moving back in his direction these days, and older artists from David Lee Murphy and Rodney Atkins to Reba McEntire and George Strait are all jumping back into the ring. None of them are making a huge splash, however, so even in Nichols rides back into town, his chart impart would be moderate at best.
Years ago, I saw a claim that Joe Nichols was one of the biggest disappointments in country music, a man with star potential that just never lived up to it. There’s some truth to that given his self-inflicted wounds, but I’d argue that he still left a noticeable mark on country music for the time that he was there. The Man With A Memory left enough of a memory to make people wonder even now why such a promising career ended up failing to launch. He (mostly) made the music he wanted to make, and even considering his trials and tribulations, his lack of career success reflects our own musical tastes as much as it does his.