Real Things, Joe Nichols' fourth album for Universal Records South, is thirteen songs about loss and victory, depression and transcendence, fleetingness and permanence, grit and grace, love and fighting. The collection presents the 30-year-old native of Rogers, Arkansas at the top of his vocal game.
Founded in the neo-traditional country styles Nichols reclaimed on Man with a Memory, his 2002 label debut, the music -- produced by Universal Records South President Mark Wright and Nichols' longtime musical collaborator Brent Rowan -- restricts itself only to Nichols' own notions of the real and the right. This is classic country from a singer who loves to tap the style's capacities for deep seriousness and deep fun. These songs, rooted and free, are something to hear.
"This is the only thing I cook," Nichols said recently, walking onto the front porch of his house in the country north of Nashville, carrying a glass of limeade he had just assembled with fresh limes. In t-shirt and workout shorts, he sat down on his porch swing, kicked off his Crocs, and began to talk about Real Things -- and his sometimes difficult five-year path to arriving at Real Things -- as his two Pugs and French Bulldog scampered around his feet. He was a relaxed guy on intimate terms with success, personal hell, and knowing how to sing country music right up there with the greatest people who ever have sung it.
"For the past year or so," Nichols said, "I've been kind of peeking at the next level." He mentioned "I'll Wait for You" and "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," two hit singles from III, his collection from 2005. "But I don't think we've put it all together on an album like this before. I think we've flirted with it, but I don't think we've gotten it just right. Musically, we've done what we've wanted to do, and have been nominated for four Grammy's, but that doesn't automatically mean that it takes you to the next level. It's just musically where you are."
After his success with III, Nichols' label underwent changes. The most significant involved the appointment to President of Mark Wright, whose work as a Grammy-nominated producer and label executive over the years has demonstrated an uncanny ability to combine fine songwriting and beautifully made musical immediacy with commercial health. "With Mark running the label," Nichols said, "we got the chance to do something like start over." Wright began to work in tandem with Brent Rowan (the wizardly guitarist and producer had worked on only some tracks for III) on what would become Real Things.
"On the last album," Nichols said, "we had three different producers who didn't work with each other; we had three different production styles. Here we had Mark and Brent together, bouncing off each other, meeting in the middle on a lot of ideas. That was a huge difference, having this continuity yet also, at the same time, having their two different flavors. They are complete contrasts. One guy --Brent -- is about putting a fender on a car; the other -- Mark -- is about constructing the whole car. Mark listens like he would listen to the radio; to him, if it sounds good, it sounds good, and you do it that way. Brent is the exact opposite: he hears, and concentrates, on each individual part and sound. I think that having these extremes brought the music a little closer to the middle of each producer's own approach. It was cool."
On songs as different as "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking," the slyest country soul tune in which a man ponders the far recesses of feminine identity, and the stormy yet elegant ballad "My Whiskey Years," in which Nichols addresses the curse of addiction as though singing to an evil lover, Nichols is extraordinary. Along with his classic tonality and flow, he wields a terrific balance of power and restraint. "Often," Nichols said, "singers want to prove, on every song, that they are SINGERS. That's great, but at the same time, it's like 'Conway Twitty me -- talk to me.' Twitty was the best at delivering a song's essence. He could sing his tail off. But he didn't do it on every song." Nichols took a long drink of limeade before continuing to make his point.
"From playing singing live, I've learned that when I look at people's faces when I'm singing, what touches them most -- what gets them to lean forward rather than lean back -- is when you show personality." Nichols mentions the Merle Haggard song "If I Could Only Fly," done as a duet with Lee Ann Womack. "When I sing 'I wish you could come with me/When I go again', lines like that offer the opportunity to let people get to know you, and really quickly. To expose the vulnerability in some of these songs, I've tried to do that. In my earlier recordings, there was probably a little bit of that. But then I would never have been as comfortable singing as I am right now."
According to Nichols, Real Things is the album he would have made from the beginning, if he'd had the skills time has helped him accumulate, and if he had not suffered from a personal detour of sorts that began to occur after his initial success -- a period during which he also experienced the death of his father.
"Anything I do musically," he said, "is a reflection of what I am doing personally. When I released my debut, I was trying to get my foot in the door wearing a big old huge steel-toed boot. With Revelation, my second album, I had gotten stuck in a little bit of a party mode. I eventually failed at that party mode; it became a depression party, with drinking and substance abuse involved. It was a scattered place up there, in my head. My father had passed away. And that led to drinking. I became an angry person who felt sorry for himself. I was like, 'Aww damn it, I want to live balls-out, just to hurry it up.'"
"I destroyed relationships that I really cared about. And I knew I was doing it! All because of that party mode. I was involved with people who I knew better than to be involved with. But I did it anyway, as a self-destruction kind of guide. On my second album there was a lot of God. I said, 'This is what I'm thinking right now'. But I was living the opposite. And I knew what I was doing was wrong. I had created an alter ego; I wished I could have been living like this godly character I'd created there. In the meantime, I was driving in the rain, going 100 mph. Life felt like I was wearing a 27-pound baseball cap."
By the time of III, Nichols had had it with such a lifestyle. He had begun to work on, and solve, the daily complications that came from his party mode. "But the third album," he said, "wasn't like a healing. It was like me saying 'I'm OK, I'm OK, I'm OK.' Unfortunately, it was also a presentation -- and one where I probably went too far in the opposite direction. I was sort of laughing at my self-pity, self-destructive mode. I was like, 'OK, I gotta get back to my personality.' I had to remember how serious I was about having fun. 'Tequila' was an extremely serious record about having fun."
"With Real Things, I think I've recaptured some of the little boy who moved to Nashville, who had no opinion about how he would present himself to people. It was a boyish kind of naiveté. This album’s not naïve. But it's getting back to the purity I had before I had ever made a record."
A pay-off of all of this is the caliber of Nichols' singing throughout the album. His first hits introduced a voice brilliantly in the great tradition of classic male country singing; on more recent hits, Nichols applied all that grandeur, on "Tequila" especially, to songs that offered a deft idea of wit. On 'Real Things' -- summarizing the theme of the album on the title song, or country-rocking up a storm on "Comin’ Back In A Cadillac," or stating his prerogatives about living his life within the surprisingly untraditional country-rock of "It Ain't No Crime," or delivering the subtle ballad such as "All I Need Is A Heart," or gliding through the midtempo love groove of "Another Side Of You" -- Nichols goes further. It is a progression not unlike those made in the historic past by singers such as Willie Nelson, when he hit his natural stride on 'Red-Headed Stranger' or Aretha Franklin, when she teamed up in Muscle Shoals with producer Jerry Wexler.
"A cool thing Mark did," Nichols said, "was to let just Brent and me do the vocals. Production is one thing, but trusting somebody to work with you on vocals, that's a more complex thing. Mark really respected that Brent and I have known each other for a long time in the studio. I trust him -- even the tone of his voice I trust. I can gauge myself by what he's saying and how he says it. Last time, I missed him creatively. It was so cool that Mark respected that."
Nichols began to talk about how he sings as he does. "These things I sing about -- even the funnier, sillier ones -- are all like experiences; something I would say, want to say, or have said. And in the songs there are lines that really stick out, like 'You've got to hear this part, because I really mean this, you've got to hear this.' In particular, like the line ‘I’m gonna put you down' in 'My Whiskey Years.' You've got to hear that because that's the meaning of the song -- that I've got to get over you if I'm ever going to be happy; if I'm ever going to live the life I want to, I've got to stand up. And that's another line in the song, 'Stand up straight.' It's kind of like gritting your teeth -- God, I gotta stand up straight and walk away. Those lines, you really gotta hear them, because that's what I would say. It's like Roger Miller -- when he would say something funny, you'd notice a giggle or a smart-aleck tone, and when he'd say something sad, you sense a kind of a cry there in his voice.
"Also, Brent will ask me, 'Would you talk to me that way? And if you were talking to me, would that be part of the sentence that you'd throw away? ' This is true of every song: certain lines, he'd say, you can't throw them away, just like in conversation. Otherwise, people would take them the wrong way."
Real Things should stand very little chance of being taken the wrong way. A honky-tonkish song as up-front and witty as "Let's Get Drunk And Fight" offers the same sort of serious clarity as does a song such as "If I Could Only Fly," which works in an area beyond wit.
"As intimate as I've ever wanted to be with people I don't know -- a.k.a. an audience -- this is that," Nichols said, looking out into the various greens of the trees beyond his porch swing. "I've wanted to let little parts go, and at times I've wanted to let it all go. But showing the restraint singing 'My Whiskey Years,' for example, without bawling, that's part of my growth. I'm just describing a story, and I know all the good parts. The whole album is like that. It's not like I'm over-sensitive or stoned-face. It's just that I'm telling a story, speaking from experiences that I know very, very well."