You can take the boy out of Arkansas, but you can’t take the Arkansas out of the boy … even when he’s covering a rap song.
Country-to-the-core hitmaker Joe Nichols has started incorporating the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot song, “Baby Got Back,” into his concert set lists. He only meant for it to be a one-time thing, but that first time was the charm.
“It started with just me playing a joke on my band…. I think it was at Stagecoach,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “I would kick off another song and then go into [singing in a slow, southern drawl], ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie…’ But the band just joined right in, so the joke was on me! So we kept playing it, and the crowd went nuts.”
The traditional country singer with the rich baritone doesn’t even attempt to rap the iconic track, instead putting a molasses-covered country spin on it. (Watch him sing “Baby Got Back” in the video player below.) Nichols is one artist on contemporary country radio you’ll likely never see dipping his toes into the “hick-hop” pool.
“The way I sing, it’s impossible to change into a different format,” he says. “My voice doesn’t lend itself to rock, and I certainly can’t spit out words fast enough to rap. So it’s gonna be country sounding, whatever I do.”
So it’s a bit less of a surprise, but just as much of a crowd pleaser when Nichols covers Merle Haggard’s “Footlights” in his live shows, which he’s been doing for more than a decade. The classic tune was a favorite of the singer’s late father and became somewhat of a catalyst for the songs Nichols has chosen for his own catalog.
“One of my greatest memories of my dad was him explaining music like ‘Footlights’ to me and why it was a special song,” he reminisces. “Later on, as an artist, I started appreciating what the song was telling me. And performing it, I started appreciating when a song makes people feel exactly what you’re feeling.”
His cover of “Footlights” is a standout track on Nichols’ current album, Crickets. The project’s latest single, “Yeah,” is now in its third consecutive week on top of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart.