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In the summer of 2003, Joe Nichols woke after a nap, stepped from the back of his tour bus and took a seat up front. Over the sound system a live version of Merle Haggard singing "No Time to Cry" began to play.
Hag sang the tune's first line, My father died a year ago today, in his world-weary tone - and it shot straight into Joe's heart. Nearly a year earlier Joe's dad, Mike Nichols, had passed away from lung disease at the young age of 46.
"I'd heard the song before on one of Merle's albums, and I always liked it," says Joe. "But I hadn't heard it in a long time, and this time it really knocked me right down. It affected me so much that I had to go to the back of the bus and compose myself."
Then Joe called his producer. "I want to cut that song," Joe told him. Two days later, "No Time to Cry" became the first song Joe recorded for his second album, Revelation.
"It really set the tone that this album was going to be deeper and more spiritual than the first album," says the tall, tousle-haired singer.
For Nichols, the two years since the release of his gold-certified Man With a Memory CD have been a speedy blur of head-spinning activity. A torrent of hits - "The Impossible," "Brokenheartsville," "She Only Smokes When She Drinks" and "Cool to Be a Fool" - turned the muscular 27-year-old into one of country music's hottest and busiest new stars.
His album earned Grammy nominations and he won the Horizon Award from the CMA and the ACM's Top New Male Vocalist honors in 2003. "I'm real proud that I'm able to make the kind of music I love and that we've been successful with it," he says.
But the joy of his success was tempered by his father's death - which happened just a week before his album was released in 2002. Joe took the death hard, but his skyrocketing career meant he barely had time for a brief trip to Arkansas to attend his father's funeral.
"I had to move on and get back to work faster than I would have if the circumstances were different," says Joe. "That's why I related to 'No Time to Cry' so much. The message is that I don't have time to have any emotions right now, especially for my loved ones and other important things. I just really related to it."
Serious issues run through Joe's second album - even the title, Revelation, suggests the profound topics that surface in several of his new songs.
"The first album touched on a lot of things, but we get more emotional and in-depth on this one," says the Arkansas native. "We still have some fun on this album, too, but I wanted to show people more emotion with this album."
The album's first hit, "If Nobody Believed in You," is a case in point. It's a serious song that begins talking about how devastating it can be for a child when a parent doesn't encourage them - and it ends with a zinger that ponders if God will still care about America if the government takes God's name out of the Pledge of Allegiance.
"It's not preachy, and it's not a political statement," says Joe. "It's just my opinion. It doesn't tie me to a political party or say that I'm for or against this person or that person. It's just the way I feel about an issue that's important to me."
Joe admits that his record company worried that the song might stir controversy. But when asked if he thinks it will, he shakes his head no.
"Country music was built on people expressing themselves," he says. "The most important part of the song talks about something that is going on in our world today. Some people want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, out of the courts, everything. In my opinion, that's totally wrong. It's good that we're a diverse country, and we should be able to choose for ourselves what we believe in. But to take the word 'God' out of everything goes against what this country was built on."
In making his decision to record "If Nobody Believed in You," Joe played the song for his band and asked their opinion. "They liked it as much as I did," he says. "They wanted me to record it so that we could put it in our show. It's a strong statement, for sure, but good records are made of strong statements."
The religious statement is only one aspect of the song. It also addresses how important it is to live up to your responsibilities as a parent. That message also hits home with Joe, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Ashelyn, who lives with her mother, Joe's ex-girlfriend.
"With my life as crazy as it is, I don't get to see her as often as I'd like," says Joe. "Ashelyn's mother and her mother's family have their own lives. When our schedules match up, I get to spend more time with her, and it's a great thing. But I know she's in good hands. She's got a great mom and a great family taking care of her."
Joe also eagerly anticipates the day when Ashelyn is old enough to travel with him. "We're moving toward that day when she can leave town and go along with me once in a while," says the singer. "She's still got some growing to do before that can happen. But it won't be long now, and I'm really looking forward to that."
Meanwhile, though, he's in touch with her regularly and enjoys their time together. "She's doing so great," he says. "She's getting ready to start first grade. She's happy and healthy, moving right along."
His harried schedule also makes dating and relationships difficult as well - though Joe's been linked to former Playboy playmate Stephanie Heinrich. But for now, the singer is mum about their relationship. "We're trying to keep things low-profile," he says.
Success also has given Joe a perspective on the struggles other parents endure.
"Traveling across the country makes me realize how lucky I am to be blessed with a healthy child," he says. "I've seen a lot of painful things because of my work with charities. In the past, I might pass a Ronald McDonald House or a children's hospital, and it didn't register with me that much. But now I know what's going on inside, and those experiences definitely affected the making of this album."
The experiences also have made him a more spiritual person. That's one reason he chose to name the album Revelation, after a 30-year-old song written by Bobby Braddock and culled from an old Waylon Jennings album.
"When I first heard it, it was like - pow! - what a song," says Joe. "My next thought was, 'Man, why hasn't anybody cut this song in the last 30 years?' It's just so poignant. It was written about the Vietnam War, but people will definitely make a connection to what we're going through now."
But Joe's quick to point out that not all the tunes on his new CD are dead-serious. "We've got some lighthearted stuff on there, too," he says. "It's a well-rounded album, and it's just as traditional as the first one. The main thing for me is to be true to myself. I think that's the only way to be successful in music. If you try to copy someone or do what everyone else is doing, what's going to make you stand out?"
For now, though, he realizes a new album also means he'll stay just as busy as ever. "The biggest change in being successful is that I don't get to be my lazy ol' self and just sit around and waste time," he says with a laugh.
"I'm hoping that my career keeps building and that we stay as busy as we can be for the next few years. We've still got a long way to go. Maybe down the road we can relax and loosen up. "But right now there's no time for that."
-- Story by Michael McCall