A MAN AND HIS MEMORIES

Joe Nichols climbs up a metal ramp at a Nashville UPS distribution center and into the back of a truck packed with boxes - all of them addressed and ready to go. "This trailer holds 1,500 boxes," he explains. "These UPS guys load 300 packages an hour!"

Joe should know. When he first moved to Nashville in 1997 from Rogers, Ark., to pursue his dream of country stardom, he paid his bills by working at UPS.

"That job sustained life," reveals the 27-year-old heartthrob. "It put a little bit of money in my pocket and kept me alive. Any job that does that is a good job."

A good job, yes. UPS pays well, especially during their busy holiday periods. But an easy job? No way.

"I worked here in the wintertime," remembers Joe. "It was 20 degrees outside, but in the truck, we were sweating and breathing diesel fumes. I unloaded boxes from about 2:30 until 9:00 in the morning."

Some songwriters might rush home after a hard day inspired to write a tune. "Not me!" laughs Joe. "When I got home from work, I collapsed. I had no energy left to write a song. This was tough, grunt work. I've got to admire people who do this for a living every day for 20 years."

Joe pulled the plug on his UPS job after one memorably bad day.

"A 30-pound box fell down and gashed my head right down the middle," says Joe. "The boss told me to go wash it off and come back in two minutes. That's when I quit."

Driving away from the UPS distribution center, Joe talks about some of his other jobs, as he heads to the apartment complex he lived in when he first made it to Music City and, then, to one of his favorite baseball fields.

After UPS, Joe worked as a mechanic, as a cable guy and at a series of temp jobs including a questionable assignment where he was asked to clean off asbestos-covered machines with an air hose. "I kept thinking, aren't you supposed to have a mask for that?" chuckles Joe. "My biggest fear was that they would hire me permanently."

Another job that didn't work out was Joe's short-lived position as a door-to-door steak salesman. "We didn't sell one steak!" exclaims Joe. "It was awful."

With all of Joe's recent success, these rough-and-tumble jobs (and even milder gigs, such as playing at Rippy's on Broadway or bartending at The Alabama Grill) seem like memories from another life. Joe's 2002 Man With a Memory album, the debut record on the new Universal South label, quickly went gold. The album's first two singles were barnburners - "The Impossible" soared to No. 3 on the Billboard chart and "Brokenheartsville" captured the No. 1 spot.

Then the nominations and awards began pouring in.

Joe was nominated for several Grammys, then walked away with the 2003 CMA Horizon Award, the ACM's Top New Male Vocalist Award and CMT's Breakthrough Video of the Year Award for "Brokenheartsville." "There are so many great emotions," confides Joe. "There's a feeling of accomplishment, but it's really just a beginning."

No question, it's been a whirlwind year. One way he keeps his feet on the ground is by doing single-dad duty with his 5-year-old daughter, Ashelyn, who lives with her mother in Nashville.

"Whenever I get a chance to do things with her, like go to Chucky Cheese or a fair, I enjoy that time so much!" confesses Joe. "It makes me so happy it bleeds into every other day of my life."

Despite his busy schedule, Joe plans to make his daughter his priority this year. "I'm going to do whatever I can to spend more time with her because it's just too little time right now," he explains. "Hopefully that will mean taking her out to some fun things on the road."

Ashelyn is more than Joe's daughter. She's his inspiration. "She's a brilliant kid," beams Joe. "She's got a great heart. She's so caring for people. That's the effect of having a great mother." Joe split up with Ashelyn's mom several years ago.

The last several months he's been seen out and about with a blond former Playboy Playmate, 22-year-old Stephanie Heinrich. "She's a really cool girl," declares Joe. "We're basically a couple of good friends who enjoy each other's company. We're just trying to learn about each other. The more public attention that comes our way, it's a little harder to get to know the other person. So we're trying to keep things low-profile."

Whenever Joe wants to bring his high-profile life back down to earth, he simply thinks back to the days when he first hit town.

"This was my first apartment when I moved here," notes Joe, as he tours the Lodge North Apartments, a three-story complex just north of Nashville. "I lived here with my guitar player, Brian Spradlin, and his wife."

Although Joe was good friends with the couple (who have since divorced), he often felt like a third wheel. "It was a little odd," laughs Joe. "They'd walk around naked sometimes. I'd have to say, 'Hey, guys - remember me?!' "

Besides being odd man out, Joe's not-so-fond memories of his Lodge North days include a painful lack of cash. "I was spending way too much time in this apartment, sitting here counting my change," remembers Joe. "There's nothing fun about rolling up pennies to see what you can eat that day."

Although times were lean, Joe still managed to have some fun. "I played baseball in a men's league," he recalls, as he walks around Nashville's McGavock Field. "And this was no ragtag softball thing. We played ex-major leaguers, minor league players and college guys during their off season. I guess we were pretty serious."

Joe recalls one particularly memorable moment. "Yeah," laughs Joe. "I got one home run!"

Although Joe played baseball in high school and describes himself as a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan, giving up his position on the team when his music career took off was a nobrainer. "This was a hobby for me, not a job," says Joe. "It didn't make me a dime!"

When Joe first made the switch from playing outfield to playing and singing full-time, he spent many hours recording songs in the basement studio at EMI Music Publishing. "I did probably 80 percent of all my demos here," says Joe, making his way down the narrow stairs of the studio. "But I don't see it as a bad thing. This place has a real warmth to it. It's simple."

With the success of Man With a Memory, Joe could probably demand a more posh working atmosphere to record his next album, which is due later this year. "I think I'd rather work here," he smiles. "Where I'm comfortable."

Joe knows the bar has been set extremely high for his follow-up album. "We're at a crossroads," he admits. "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."

Joe may have more to worry about than hype when he heads out on tour later this year, since he'll be opening up for legendary pranksters Brooks & Dunn. "I've heard it's a wild and fun time out there," smiles Joe. "I can't wait."

-- M.B. ROBERTS

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