Man With A Memory (Universal South)

He calls Merle Haggard his favorite singer, but you also hear traces of Keith Whitley and George Strait in Joe Nichols' smooth baritone. This young Rogers, Ark., native is clearly a student of the masters - but make no mistake, he has too much talent and integrity to be anyone's clone.

Man With A Memory, Joe's major-label debut, backs that up. "The Impossible," his first Top 20, is a terrific song whose heartfelt message avoids over-the-top sappiness. Stone country to the tip of his boots, Joe sings the suds off barroom fare like "Joe's Place," "Brokenheartsville" and the title track, unhindered by the political correctness that frightens some of today's other new singers.

He also aces tender love ballads like "That Would Be Her," and shows a deft touch with the hilarious "Life Don't Have To Mean Nothin' At All," from the free-wheeling pen of the legendary Tom T. Hall: If everybody says you're a little too tall/Go out and get yourself a basketball/Dye your hair orange and put a ring in your ear/You can make 47 million dollars a year.

Blake Shelton, Kevin Denney and now Joe Nichols - could a new generation of tradition-steeped country singers be poised to take over the airwaves? Here's hoping.

-- Larry Wayne Clark

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