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Two years removed from treatment for substance abuse, the peace Joe Nichols has found shows in his easy smile, the penetrating eyes and the warmth and sincerity in his voice when he laughs, accepts a compliment or says “God bless you” to someone he barely knows. This is a person reveling in the second chance he’s been given to be the man he was meant to me. And Joe’s making the most of it.
He and wife of two years Heather are in a rock solid relationship, he’s got a great outlook on life and Joe’s new album, Old Things New, out Oct. 27, may well be his best work ever. He recently spent an hour with CW’s David Scarlett, talking about his troubled past, his incredibly good new record and the believers who’s helped him along the way. Here’s part of what Joe had to say.
CW: In “We All Go Home” from the new record, it talks about memories like “stuffin’ your mouth at Grandma’s house.” When you think of childhood memories, what kind of things come to mind for you?
JN: You know, it could be anything from a football game in the yard to . . . the other day we did a barbecue in somebody’s backyard, we played a mini concert at somebody’s house. They won a contest. We came to their house and played about 20 minutes in Portland, Oregon. It was fun. I had a great time. It was nice. And I remember thinkin’, ‘Wow, this brings back so many memories from backyard barbecues,’ which was where I learned how to sing. Those were our family get-togethers. We’d break out guitars and we’d start all singin’ together, doin’ old Merle and Hank Jr. songs and David Allen Coe.
It’s brought memories like . . . in the daytime all of us kids would kind of run around the yard and play football or whatever sport we wanted to play that day. Get tired, go eat somethin’ . . . fall asleep, take a nap . . . and then later on that night, the adults in the adult room would be kinda liquored up by then! (laughs) Playin’ music and we’d all gather around for a jam session that lasted into the night. That was kinda the normal kinda thing. When we were doin’ this backyard barbecue, it was like I was right back there again. And it makes you happy and sad at the same time . . . like, I wish I could be a kid again . . . I wish I could experience that one more time. ‘Cause I’d really appreciate it even more next time.
CW: I love “Believers” . . . who are some of the believers you’ve admired in your life?
JN: Believers in my life . . . my wife. She’s a woman who believed in me when very few others did. That’s one. I think she saw something in me . . . value in me, in what I am, who I am. She saw value in a person, ‘This guy’s a good quality guy. He needs to get some things straight.’ Another person is Brent Rowan, one of my producers. He’s been a best friend for a long time. He’s the one that first shopped me to a record label. He said, ‘I think you’ve got it and I want to shop you to label x, label y, label z.’ He beat the streets with me and we got a deal.
My dad was a believer, a real supportive guy. He believed in me and music. ‘Son, I’m proud of you for getting’ this done and I’m proud of the music that you want to do.’
CW: You talked to me once about listening to music with your dad in his truck . . . what do you think he’d think of this album?
JN: I think he’d love this album. I think my dad would love this album. Which makes me just giggle. Knowin’ that he would really dig this . . . I can go down this list and tell you. He would love “It’s Me I’m Worried About,” “Old Things New” he would die for—that’s it. “Man, Woman” he would probably think is the best song on there. He would dig “Believers,” “Cheaper Than a Shrink,” maybe. “Old Friend of Mine” . . . he would go for those songs first. He would go for those songs first, but I think he would be happy with this whole album. I think he’d look at this and go, ‘This is a good job, son.’ That’s what makes me happy. I can think that in my mind and go, ‘I think I did a good job.’
CW: What about where you are in life? Would he be proud of that, too?
JN: Yeah, I think he would. I think my father would have a lot of things to say about the resolve of that. About the intestinal fortitude. When things aren’t right and we’ve got a lot of fault—all the fault—in why things in my personal world weren’t right. Acknowledging that, admitting I’m wrong, saying I’m sorry, doing the work to correct that with people around me. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of courage and a lot of time. We’re kind of in the middle of that process. But that’s where I’m going’. I think he would acknowledge that. I think he would say, ‘I’m proud of you for walkin’ that path. It ain’t an easy one, but you’re doin’ it.’
CW: “An Old Friend of Mine” is obviously sung with conviction by someone who’d been there. Did you and Gordon [piano player Gordon Mote] do it in one take?
JN: I don’t know if it was the first take, but it was one take. When I went over the song with the piano player, that was recorded. That may or may not be that one. We did it two, maybe there times.
CW: Did you and Gordon both know . . . ‘we can sing it again, but we’re not gonna get any better than that’?
JN: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Just Gordon Mote and myself. We went through it once. Brent Rowan said after the first time, ‘I think we’re good. I think we got it. If you want to run it again, just for posterity, you can.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s run it again.’ But we only had 20 minutes total in the studio, from the time we were done with the last song to listening to the demo of “Old Friend,” which I was already familiar with. But Gordon listened . . . I think he can just hear it and go, ‘I’ve got it.’ He can map it out in his mind. He went in there and grabbed the piano and started tinkerin’ a little bit and we went front to back.
And if you notice the vocal’s not perfect. It’s not auto-tuned, it’s not processed. It doesn’t match up with a lot of stuff on the record. It’s me singing my guts out as if I’m in the room with you. And that’s what the song should be. So, that’s why we left it as is.
CW: It probably did come from starting from scratch in your treatment . . but finding the strength to leave it all behind as the lyrics talk about . . . is kind of the key to everything from that point forward isnt’ it?
JN: The ability to be humble and have gratitude is the strength behind it. And asking for help is humility. Being humble is knowing that I don’t have it . . . I don’t have control.
CW: That’s hard for a lot of guys who feel like their manhood will be questioned if they yield control I think.
JN: It sure is. But at the same time, it’s freeing. It’s very liberating to know, ‘All right, all I’ve gotta do is let go and let someone else have it. And all I’ve gotta do is do what’s right in front of me. Do the next right thing. There’s a choice in front of me that I’ve got to make. I’m gonna weigh it out, see what the right thing to do is and that’s what I’m gonna do.
For more about Joe and his new music, check out the story in the Nov. 2 issue of Country Weekly.
Watch Special Joe Nichols Interview Video