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Not your average Joe (Nichols)

By Jeffrey B. Remz, September 2004

Repeating the success of a hit-laden album is never easy or a given. Not in this day and age of flavor-of-the-month groups and a fickle public seemingly always onto the next big thing.

For some musicians, the easiest route would be giving the fans exactly the same old.

And what's different about Nichols' great, full sounding voice?"I learned there are some things that I could do, how low I could sing and make it believable," he says. "The strength of the voice is what I mean. Being on the road (giving concerts), I learned what I could and could not do."

In fact, when discussing what he wanted to do with the new album, Nichols says, "Number one was to make something that lived up with 'Man With a Memory' or even exceeded it. I wanted to do something much like 'Man With a Memory,' but make it that much better. I think we did."

Referring to the 11 songs on "Revelation," Nichols says the music is "definitely a snapshot of the mood in my life right now or the last year or two."

"I'm a little more in touch with the emotional side of things the past couple of years," says Nichols.

Nichols mixes it up musically between ballads, uptempo numbers and honky tonkers.

And although Nichols only co-wrote one song (the humorous "What's a Guy Gotta Do" with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson where Nichols asks "What's a guy gotta do to get a girl in this town/don't wanna be alone when the sun goes down"), the songs seem to fit him quite well with a spiritual bent of several songs and a slice of the simple, small town life in others.

Prime among them was the title track, originally recorded by Waylon Jennings on "Ladies Love Outlaws" in 1972, and not exactly feel good music.

"Revelation" refers a 19-year-old Vietnam veteran leaving a bar drunk; Memphis school children swearing "they'd heard a choir singin' down the street" and a man having an affair in a hotel room only to see "all at once the clouds rolled back and there stood Jesus Christ in all his glory" only to realize it was all a dream."

Nichols says he never heard the song before Mike Owen of his label, Universal South Records, brought it to him. "Amazing song," says Nichols, "and I can't believe no one's cut it (again) so far. Thankfully, we went in the studio and laid it down."

Nichols did hear a version of the song recorded by the late Keith Whitley in the back of his bus. "I was pretty impressed with that," he says. "That's a couple of good recordings to try to live up to."

"If Nobody Believed in You," penned by Harley Allen, and the current single, also tackles spiritual themes. The song starts with a kid taking strike three to the great disappointment of his father. Fast forward. An old man gets his car keys taken away by his son. The final part concerns God and the removal of God from schools. "What if God quit trying," Nichols sings. "And He just turned away. There were teardrops in His face/tell me how would you feel/You'd probably give up too/If nobody believed in you."

"It blew me away," says Nichols of the song. Once he heard it, "right then and there, I said we need to do this song. This is pretty strong stuff. I don't care what it says. This is what I believe."

Referring to his perceived de-emphasis of God in recent years, Nichols says, "I watch and see what's going on in the world, and it's kind of a shame that people are wanting that to happen. That's the motivation behind singing that verse. It's not something that'll make you get mad and angry and hate somebody. It's disappointing that people have gone to the extreme that they have."

While perhaps an unusual choice for a single given its religious theme, Nichols says record company and artist agreed on the choice. 'Universal South label head Tony Brown says in a phone interview from Nashville, "It was second album, and we knew the first single had to drive the sales. The first two singles are really important."

"I think it is a heavy song, but two things that seem to be working are party songs, like (those of) Gretchen, Big & Rich and Montgomery Gentry, and spiritual things," says Brown. "I think part of it has to do with the condition of the world right now.

The closing song is the sad Iris DeMent song "No Time to Cry." DeMent writes about the anniversary of her father's death and the need to fly to Detroit for a gig. The tug between career, family and lack of emotions is quite strong in the song.

Nichols own father, Mike, died in 2002 of a pulmonary fibrosis at 46.

"I think definitely a lot of the spiritual side of me comes out on this album," says Nichols. "I think it's a good thing. I think country music was built on that, you know. People that started country music sang about religion about all the time. Only recently we got away from it."

When he's not downright serious, Nichols stretches it out on honky tonkers, often with a humorous bent, like "Don't Ruin It for the Rest of Us" about a friend getting giddy with his barroom friends about his marriage while the Braves are about to lose.

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