Joe Nichols Interview: Tours, Teenage Years and Traditional Country Music

Joe Nichols Interview: Neil talks with the man from Arkansas ahead of his Manchester show

It’s taken 17 years, but Joe Nichols finally made it over the pond for a series of acoustic shows for his first UK tour. Our man Neil sat down with Joe before he took to the stage in Manchester.

Joe Nichols

Joe, great to meet you – welcome to Manchester. At last, you’re in the UK!

Yeah, great to meet you too.

You kicked off the tour last night in Bristol. It’s a different country, different venue, different crowd, different language even!

Yeah, somewhat!

Any first night nerves?

A little bit. You know, I think they’re pretty passionate fans. I got to meet a few people before the show and they were fired up, so that kinda gets me at least in the mode like, they knew who I was (laughs). So that made me feel alright, but that was a fun way to kick it off.

I imagine you’ve heard plenty about the kind of audiences you get in the UK…

Yeah, rowdy!

Well, we do both, we like to listen too.

Yeah, I thought they were a very appreciative crowd of music that’s not necessarily well known, you know, a lot of album cuts and stuff like that. But there were some rowdy ones there, man, real die hards. I love that.

Did anything you’d heard about us influence any songs you’ve picked for the setlist for these UK shows?

Yeah, we had kind of a few set aside, like the singles, Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off, The Impossible, Brokenheartsville and stuff, but they were hollerin’ out requests. I like to keep this thing like a story-tellers night, you know. Share a story, or throw out a request, something like that, and they were throwing out requests from album cuts from 15, 17 years ago. And that’s pretty cool. It’s great that they know the music that way.

That does sound like a pretty cool night.

It’s great! It’s flattering, it keeps us on our toes a little bit. We have to kinda improvise a little bit, but it was fun. It was a lot of fun getting to do that.

Do you do many of that kind of show in the States?

Some. You know sometimes we’ll do for a radio station every now and again, we’ll do an acoustic thing like a story-tellers guitar pool with a couple of other artists. But as far as a full show, just us, you know, come out and see us, it’s every now and then.

Before you came to the UK this week, you’ve been over in Gstaad for the Country Night festival – and not for the first time there.

No, it was my second time. We were there in 2005, it was kinda before “Tequila…” hit. It feels like another lifetime ago. It was a fun time, fun going back. I remembered immediately when we walked on stage, the crowd was a very listening crowd. I was like, “Oh yes, I remember this! We’re gonna have to work for it guys!” (laughs).

I saw some of your set from Gstaad when you live-streamed it on Facebook, they did come across a little like that.

They were very quiet. “Do not screw up!” (laughs)

Joe Nichols 1What is it like, being the guy from Arkansas playing Country music in the Swiss Alps? It’s an interesting location, isn’t it?

Yeah, when you put it like that. I haven’t thought of it in a long time. God, I’ve had so many careers (laughs). Coming from Arkansas is a very indirect path. It feels great. To get to do this anywhere feels pretty great. It’s a pretty great gig, but to go and have some beautiful scenery and see parts of the world that I would never have seen otherwise, that’s a perk, a bonus.

Of course, earlier this year you were in Denver, Colorado in the Mile High Stadium. It looks like a fantastic place, 84,000 people…

Crazy. It was a great show, man. Garth (Brooks) has always been very kind to me, always been very gracious. He draws a crowd that’s like nobody else. I can’t think of any other act that draws 100,000 people on a nightly basis, anywhere he wants to play. For him to pick us to come play a show for him in Denver… I try to describe the “noise type” that show was. It’s like, if you’ve ever been to a football game, and someone’s scored a touchdown – the entire 45 minutes was like that high ring, an almost deafening kind of sound. Pretty great.

Do you follow NFL? Do you have a team?

I do, yeah! Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans.

Ah, ok, 2 teams?

Yeah, I lived in Tennessee for about – well, Nashville – for about 12, 13 years. Moved to east Texas, married a Texan so I’ve kinda adopted the Cowboys.

So you’ll have seen that stadium many times then.

A few times, yeah. It’s a spaceship! (laughs) It’s out of this world.

So, you’re from a town called Rogers in Arkansas originally. What can you tell us about it? What was it like growing up there?

There wasn’t much to the place I grew up. Not much of a night life or anything like that. You really had to kinda go pretty far away to do anything cool, like Little Rock or Fort Smith, sometimes in Fayetteville. It was kind of a small town, the county fair was about the only thing we had. Two weeks of every year it’d come through and we’d see some fairly known, national acts come through musically.

But we got in a lot of stupid trouble, you know? Cow tipping was a real thing! I remember we used to do Redneck Rodeo, we’d have the pickup trucks and we’d go through the fields, and we were just holding on to the tailgate, middle of the night, drunk, in the middle of the fields… It’s a wonder nobody got their neck broken. Stupid stuff like that, you know. Bonfires, pasture parties. That was about it, trying to figure out a way to kill ourselves and have fun! (laughs)

How easy was it for you to find other people to play the music that you enjoyed? Not all of your friends group liked Country music, did they?

Yeah, I was a little bit of an oddball in high school. I enjoy all kinds of music, I enjoyed all kinds of music then. I was never big on any other genre… I was never passionate about any other genre except for Country. And the Country that was popular then was, you know, pretty rockin’. I always liked the old stuff, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley. My friends, if they liked country at all, they were into like the newest, new and poppier sounding Country. All my friends I hung out with, the rockers, you know, kind of the hard rock guys that loved the loud stuff, and they always thought I was funny because I was like, “Can you turn that shit down?” (laughs) “Turn that shit down, or turn Merle on or something!”. I was a little bit of a weirdo in high school, but later on I think they came around to my way of thinking. I’ve seen them at many shows since.

You say you didn’t get many acts coming through town when you were growing up. Can you remember the first show you went to ?

My first show was in Fayetteville, Arkansas at the Barnhill Arena, and it was George Strait and Patty Loveless.

That is a pretty good start!

Yeah! They looked like a little speck! I’m sitting way up in the nosebleeds, there’s 10,000 people there and I could barely make out a guitar and a cowboy hat! But it was cool, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, man.

Joe Nichols 2Throughout your career you’ve always mixed new and older songs and styles. Lately your releases have tended more towards the traditional. Is that where you see your career continuing in that direction?

I think so. I think I’m more comfortable just singing Country songs, traditional Country songs. I think the worst thing a person can do, the worst thing an artist can do is have a song that’s a big hit that they don’t like in 2 years, because maybe the trend has passed. You know, “Gosh, I’ve gotta sing this for the rest of my life. I’m miserable!”. I’d just rather sing Country songs, I don’t know how popular it’s gonna be but I like the old stuff. I like traditional stuff, and it seems to me that’s kinda making a comeback as far as popularity goes. That’s good for a guy like me, that’s kinda my wheelhouse.

Have you managed to catch any of the Ken Burns Country Music series?

Not yet, no. I’ve heard about it, but I’ve got it recorded. I haven’t watched it yet.

It hasn’t been broadcast over here just yet, but I think that’s going to open a lot of people up to the traditional stuff because it goes all the way back.

Good. I saw the very first snippet of it, it was going back to Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family….

Also, your career has spanned this time of real change in the way that music is produced and distributed so that it’s now heavily dominated by streaming rather that physical sales. How have the changes affected the way that you do what you do?

Well, that’s a good question. More than anything, it all affects money. As far as the recording goes, not much has changed., as far as just wanting to put out, find good music, write good music, produce good music. I think one thing that I’ve noticed is that all the big money, the record labels, you know, the people who have all the power, usually the technology outruns them. And the guy they beat up on to catch up, is the artist – “We’re losing money guys, let’s take some more from the artist!”. It’s kinda how it is.

Do you feel it’s presented you with any opportunities, or are there any benefits to the changes?

I would say this – had it not been for the technology changing, and more of the streaming being a thing, we wouldn’t have been able to do a thing like the Traditional Country series. That would’ve been something we’d have had to package up and put on a CD, and that would’ve taken a lot more time and money and everything. This way, we were able to produce it and put it out there. So that’s a positive.

That does seem to be happening quite a lot now.

It’s definitely gonna change a lot of the formula and the schedule of how we usually roll out the music.

So, after your UK dates it’s back to the U.S. and more shows.

Right back at it! (laughs)

You’ve got some dates lined up with Bret Michaels (famous as the lead singer of rock band Poison).

Oh yeah! In November, coming up.

That’s going to be quite a mixed lineup and a mixed audience, I guess?

You know, when they presented me with that offer my first thought was, “Hmm? What?” You know what, you never know. Some stuff like that, weirdly enough, it works just right. I’m friends with a few rock guys, a few rock bands, and they love Country music. A lot of those guys love Country music, and especially the traditional stuff. So when I got the offer, and I heard that Bret Michaels himself was like, “I want Joe to come and do this”, I was like, “Alright. This is gonna be fun!”.

We’ll do our couple of country songs in the middle of this crazy rock show, but like I said, you never know. Sometimes, weirdly enough, it works. Everybody’s got a little bit of Country in them. Even this guy! (laughs as he points to his tour manager). So I’ll come out and do my 10 minutes and then “Goodnight, see you in the next town!”

Joe Nichols 3

So, what else can we expect from you for the rest of this year and into 2020?

You know, I’m working on stuff right now in the studio and I don’t know when we’re gonna have that ready to drop. I would imagine probably Spring of next year we’ll have some new stuff out, just because we’re thick in the touring schedule and I know how the recording can kinda bleed on into the winter months. I don’t see us being done, finished with anything ready to release before the end of the year – so probably in the Spring.

Will that be new material?

It’ll be new stuff, all completely new, yeah. I’m looking forward to it, there’s some good stuff in there that I’m really excited about.

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