Many things about Joe Nichols’ life have been a slow build, culminating in his success over the past two years. The 38-year-old country artist has been active for almost 20 years, beginning with his eponymous 1996 debut — and though he's had hits before, even Nichols himself will tell you that 2015 has been his biggest year.
Still playing off the success of 2013’s traditional-leaning Crickets, which saw singles “Sunny and 75” and “Yeah” score him No. 1 Billboard country airplay slots, the Arkansas native is juggling an active touring schedule while recording his follow-up. He's 10 songs deep into the new record, with at least three or four singles in his sights.
“We want people to know that I’m a traditional country singer, but that this belongs on the radio in 2015 and ’16,” he says. “I hope that country kind of finds its traditional path again. I understand where we’re at. … We’re trying to make the best record that we can do to satisfy the country in us, but at the same time try to be relevant today to radio.”
In a genre in which radio airplay and ticket sales are paramount, Nichols is aware that his brand of storytelling, based on admiration for greats such as George Jones and Dolly Parton, may not be fully in line with the pop-skewing stuff that currently dominates country radio. But rather than pander to a strain of country music that’s not in line with his approach, Nichols has stuck to his guns, and it's paid off in the long run, as he finds his music more popular than ever.
Like any artist with airplay, Nichols does wonder what it would be like to collect more critical accolades and awards, but he tries to keep his own lofty standards in check. “Every time I get wrapped up in those kind of goals, I think of everything else as a failure and it kind of destroys me. It destroys my positive attitude,” he explains. “At this point I try to be as realistic as possible. I’m not going to win Male Vocalist of the Year anytime this year, but I can do something worth doing and make it appeal to that year or next year or the year following. I think that I’m trying to make my goals more in the near future where I can see them, rather than have some ridiculous goal that I’m probably not realistic about.”
That self-effacing note is a common thread throughout Nichols’ answers during our conversation, sometimes bordering on self-deprecation. When asked if anxiety is a big part of his life, he’s quick to respond with a resounding, “Absolutely.”
If there’s something that Joe Nichols is undoubtedly confident in, however, it’s the evolution of his desired legacy, from his early days in Nashville as the face of young country music to an established voice with commercial and critical success and a lane all his own. More important than the music, however, is his devotion to his three daughters. Caretaking is in Nichols’ blood, whether he’s maintaining the storytelling elements of country music or paving a path for his children.
“It was a very strange vision or goal to have, but it was there in my mind: I wanted people to think I was great but never had the success, and what a shame that was,” he admits. “It was a very immature, very selfish, kind of ‘poor me’ goal to have. But that’s changed quite a bit over the past seven, eight years into [a goal where] I want to leave behind something for my kids — not money but that my name, their name, is important to me, their future, the possibility of them getting a college education, maybe even higher than that. Those are my goals now, and that’s what I want my legacy to be: I want my kids to have a great launching point for their lives.”
Joe Nichols plays the Canyon Club on Sunday, July 26.