Everyday country

Friday, March 26, 2004

With song titles like "Brokenheartsville" and "She Only Smokes When She Drinks" on his album "Man with a Memory," Joe Nichols' music conjures up an image of country music filled with honky-tonks and lonely souls.

His youthful good looks and rockerlike appearance belie Nichols' deep, rugged vocals and everyday-setting songs that could be sung by his idol, Merle Haggard.

Judging by his success, the public approves of the way Nichols plays country music.

Cape Girardeau fans will get a chance to see Nichols when he opens for country veterans Brooks & Dunn on April 1 at the Show Me Center.

While he is an opening act this time, if Nichols' star continues to rise it won't be long before he's headlining his own tour.

In 2003, Nichols won the Horizon (best new artist) Award at the Country Music Awards, was named top new male vocalist by the Academy of Country Music and received a Grammy nomination for best male country vocal performance.

In addition, "Man with a Memory" went gold in June 2003.

"It happened pretty quickly," Nichols said of his success. "I've handled everything so far with, I wouldn't say ease, but very professionally and kept a nice, level head. I think right now the key is to keep my eyes on the road and looking at what's ahead of me."

Nichols' father was a part-time musician, and while he was growing up in Arkansas, the 27-year-old Nichols said, "I always thought I'd be a musician. I just didn't know I could take it as far as I did."

Much has been made of Nichols' back-to-basics songs on "Man with a Memory."

His work often has been compared to artists like Randy Travis and George Strait, both artists Nichols admires.

What all these artists have in common is a stripped-down version of country music that reflects everyday life and not the glammed-up world of pop-crossover divas like Faith Hill or Shania Twain.

According to Nichols, this just happens to be the type of music he grew up listening to and what he feels comfortable playing. He is not too comfortable, however, with being labeled as the next big thing in country music.

"Those are some awfully big shoes to fill," Nichols said. "It's still early in my career. It's way too early in my career to stamp a major label on me like that."

Nichols said he would have put out an album like "Man with a Memory" no matter what the "sound" in Nashville was at the time or what was getting radio airplay.

Before he was on the road with Brooks & Dunn, Nichols spent almost a year on tour with another country veteran, Alan Jackson.

"Basically all I'm doing out there is trying to build a fanbase while I learn from these guys who have been around 15 to 20 years," he said.

The time he has spent on tour with Brooks & Dunn, Nichols said, already has improved his live performance.

"I've grown a lot since I've been with them," he said. "It's been going great. Every day has been a learning experience. I've learned to work for the audience -- they've come to be entertained."

Brooks & Dunn is known for their Neon Circus shows of years past, but they have pared things down for the Red Dirt Road Tour. However, that means the stage is equipped with two 12-by-16-foot video screens and giant inflatable cowgirls, quite different from Nichols' basic men-and-their-instruments performance.

Nichols thinks the two styles complement each other well and also feed off each other.

Although his set does not have all the bells and whistles of Brooks & Dunn, Nichols said he tries to give a high-energy performance.

Nichols will play a roughly 45-minute set after newcomer Josh Turner opens the show. During this time, Nichols and his six-member band will play a mixture of songs off "Man with a Memory," cover songs and songs from his upcoming album.

Between the tour's last stop in South Carolina and the Cape Girardeau show, Nichols has been in Nashville -- his home base -- on his new, untitled album that is set to be released in June.

The first single off the album, "If Nobody Believed in You," was released last week.

"The response has been really good so far," he said. "I would say that the main change is that this album is a bit deeper -- it has more meaning. This one touches a lot of issues."

There are no plans yet for a tour to promote the new album, but fans likely will be able to see Nichols perform this summer in some large outdoor festivals, like the Hodag Festival in Wisconsin. Nichols said he and his band would like to stop at some smaller venues when they have the time.

"Right now we're focused on Brooks & Dunn tour because that's all our plates can handle," he said.

kalfisi@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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