Joe Nichols almost nailed it: When the country hitmaker took the stage for a Friday afternoon set at New York’s Farmborough Festival, the sky was partly cloudy and the temperature was 76 degrees — not far from the conditions celebrated in 2013’s chart-topping “Sunny and 75.” Nevertheless, the song was the high point of a set that included covers of both Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Earlier, he chatted with Rolling Stone Country about his love of the Band, hanging with Dierks Bentley and country music’s coming sea change.
What can festivals like this can bring to country music?
They serve a lot of great purposes. You get to meet a mass amount of country fans in one place. They like to drink, and the more they drink the better we sound — that’s always good. Plus you get to run into a lot of old friends you don’t normally get to see on the road. I ran into Dierks earlier, and I’m looking forward to catching up with him. He’s an old friend from way back before we had record deals, and we’re fans of the same kinds of music. That’s why I like these places: It’s kind of a hang.
What do you and Dierks talk about when you get to catch up?
Mostly music. We talk about his band, my band, stuff we’re listening to, stuff we’re thinking about cutting — if the record label will see fit to let us cut something that probably won’t set the world on fire as far as sales go. Of course, that guy, anything he cuts right now is turning into gold. My world’s a little different: I gotta be very careful.
Has anything in particular been catching your ear lately?
Actually, I got turned on to the Band a while back, from my band, so I’ve been listening to a lot of them. And I started getting into Little Feat, things like that — country-rock stuff. More than anything, Don Williams. If I want to chill, it’s Don Williams; if I want to maybe have a good time a little bit, it’s probably the Band; and if I wanna work out, it’s Alice in Chains.
What is it about the Band that hooked you?
The authenticity stands out. It was a period kind of band, but it still holds up over time. A lot of those guys obviously had very keen minds on how to deliver a lyric, how to vaguely make their point without making too many people mad or too many people aggressive toward it. “Tears of Rage,” “Acadian Driftwood,” “They Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” of course “The Weight” — a lot of great songs there that I just love to dig into.
Sometimes people are surprised to learn that most of the band members are Canadian.
The singer’s from neck of the woods, though. He’s from Arkansas: Levon Helm. Elaine, Arkansas, I think, then he went over to the west side. That’s about where I’m from. I like anybody from that neck of the woods.
Do you think that location colors your music?
I think so. I learned how to speak, talk, sing with the same kind of timbre, same kind of voice. I think it had a lot to do with how I grew up, how everybody around me talked, even though I didn’t have as big a drawl as most everybody else did around where I’m from. And that country life, that can be hard as hell sometimes. You make those vows: “I’ll do whatever it takes to get out of this hell hole,” you know? That came from there.
Your hits date back to the mid-Nineties. What makes 2015 different for country music? What’s happening now that wasn’t happening two decades ago?
It’s this way with every genre. I’ll go back to the authenticity point: The fans are smarter than we think they are, and they start yearning for some kind of organic feeling that comes to music — not just, “I heard this before, it sounds familiar, I like the beat, so I’m gonna like it.” Sometimes they search for more. They search for more depth in the song, they search for depth in the artist and I think that’s where we’re headed. I don’t know what kind of music is going to be popular next year, but I know what kind of music and what kind of lyric isn’t — and that’s the very shallow one.
What’s something that has surprised you in country music in the last year or two?
Just that kind of grumbling of, “What the hell are we doing?” I’ve heard that from so many people that have had monstrous success over the last five years doing the stuff that’s more fluff than depth. I’ve heard a lot of those people say, “Man, what the hell are we doing? Let’s get back and make it about the song, make it about something deep, something more than just making money off somebody that’s wanting three minutes of a commercial jingle.”
Do you think that’s going to happen?
I do. I think it’s probably gonna put a lot of people out of a job, and it’s probably going to put a lot of people that don’t have jobs right now in places where they should have been a long time ago.
Who’s an example of someone we should being paying closer attention to here in New York?
I love Sturgill [Simpson], what Sturgill’s doing out there. He’s keeping it the way he learned it, and that’s hard to do for a lot of us because we really get tempted. Chris Stapleton. He writes great stuff, and he sings his tail off. I’ve always said that if that guy’s not a superstar, there’s no justice in music. But I’ve also never claimed there’s justice in music.