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For those with a memory, Joe Nichols

By Dan MacIntosh, July 2002

Joe Nichols calls Nashville home now, but grew up in the little town of Rogers, Ark., home of the very first Wal-Mart. Now, there's nothing wrong with Wal-Mart, per se, since it provides all the essential everyday stuff of life.

But Wal-Mart is not one of your more trendy boutiques. Similarly, although Nichols may not be the trendy type either, he's certainly far greater than just your average, run of the mill country artist. His new album, "Man With A Memory," is aural proof that Nichols can fondly recall all of the most pivotal players in country music's great legacy.

The way his voice twists and turns around these songs, like a sports car on an unpredictable and winding San Francisco city street, brings names like Merle Haggard and Randy Travis immediately to mind.

"Wal-Mart's store number one is in Rogers," Nichols proclaims proudly. "Most everybody I went to high school with or still know works for or has worked for Wal-Mart. Rogers is like any suburban area of a big city, only there's no big city around."Nichols' singing is a real thing of beauty and clearly not store-bought.

But you have to hear Nichols' voice to get this impression, rather than just look at one of his publicity photos. This is because he looks more like a foreign film star than any other country singer you might have seen. Such a distinctively different look, however, has only helped Nichols' career thus far.

"It's been an edge because I think that's what gets people's attention right off the bat. Once they are intrigued by the difference from the look, the style of music and the singing, I think people are just kind of reeled in by that. That's been a good thing for us."

Nichols, 25, looks marvelous, but we haven't seen much of his pretty face around country music circles lately.

It would take a fan with a long memory to recall Nichols' previous album debut album, since it's been a whole six years since that one came out.

"That was on an independent record label," Nichols says of his debut for Innersound. "I moved to town after that record. I wanted a major label deal, so I moved here. I started beating the streets on a bigger level, and it's just taken that long."

He says he sold a lot of records, for an independent release, but it didn't garner a lot of airplay or the kinds of numbers a major release receives.

Nichols spent his time between labels mastering his song writing craft and doing a few odd jobs, like playing cable guy and UPS. "I even sold steaks," he recalls with a chuckle. "But that lasted for only one day."

Nichols is the first artist to release an album on the new Universal South label, a far better fit for the country singer. "It (Innersound) was more of a Christian music, rap, gospel and rock and roll label," he explains. "There wasn't a whole lot of country, though."

The singer got signed by his new label the old-fashioned way: by singing and playing his songs for the label heads.

"Brent Rowan, who is my producer, took me into see Tony Brown," Nichols recalls of the current Universal South co-founder. "We played a few songs for Tony live - this was when he was still with MCA. And Tony called his new partner, Tim DuBois, and said, 'You probably need to check this out, and tell me what you think.' We went over and played for Tim as well. They called back, and Tim is quoted as saying, 'If I had a record label, I sure would offer you a record deal.' But when they did put it (the new label) together finally, and got the paperwork signed, he did call me and said, 'I'd like to offer you a slot on our record label.' And I said, 'Wonderful.'"

Nichols' song writing ability makes him a more valuable asset to Universal South than just a pretty voice and face.

The singer's name is listed as a writer on three songs, yet each time, he is credited as a co-writer. "For me, I need somebody to bounce ideas off of," Nichols states. "I'm more of an idea person. I can think of an idea and see how it works with other people. And co-writers always seem to work well for me, just because when you don't have it, somebody else may. I'm not the kind of precision songwriter that Skip Ewing is, which is one who can write by himself.

Nichols helped write one of he album's best songs, a fun one called "Everything's A Thing."

"Actually, that tune started out to be kind of a Roger Miller sounding thing," he explains. "I was driving in from where I lived, which was Hendersonville at the time, driving in to town to write with Will Nance and Steve Dean, and I thought of the idea, 'Man, everybody's got a thing. Everybody's doing a thing. There's the picking thing, a singing thing, doing a record deal thing and a writing thing. And that's where the idea came from: everything's a thing. And that's a one-chord song. That song never changes key."

Another album highlight is a song called "Cool To Be A Fool," which almost sounds like a sequel to the old Buck Owens' hit, "Act Naturally.

"That's a big compliment," Nichols exclaims, when the similarities in these two songs are pointed out. "I'm a shuffle fan. I'm a big country fan. My co-writers (Dean and Nance again) decided to write a country tune that was reminiscent of some older George Strait stuff or some older shuffle things from Texas, and that's what we came up with. And it had to have 'beer' in there somewhere," he adds, punctuating this last statement with a sharp laugh.

His desire to write a song George Strait might feel comfortable singing highlights Nichols' strong traditional roots. These musical roots are also intertwined with his familial roots, as he explains it.

"I just grew up watching my dad fall in love with songs from Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Randy Travis and those styles of singers. And watching that all your life, you just kind of do what you know and what you've seen. And that's what I've done after listening to those records for years. It's kind of like the Daryle Singletary song says, 'Mamma hit me with a George Jones record/and that's why I sing like this.' When it's been imbedded in your brain for years, you just follow that."