You wouldn’t normally lump baritone country crooner Joe Nichols into the same category with Lady Gaga — he always remembers to leave the house with his pants on, after all — but with his new single “Freaks Like Me,” he admits the two actually have a little something in common. Namely, an appreciation for songs that celebrate the weird and wild in all of us, whether that’s left (or right) of center.
“I think it’s brilliant, and ‘Freaks Like Me’ is a lot like that,” Nichols tells Rolling Stone Country of Gaga’s “Born This Way,” seated inside the Country Aircheck building on Music Row in a bicep-hugging T-shirt and boots. Like “Freaks,” it’s an anthem that preaches self-expression and self-confidence even if your point of view isn’t widely accepted or en vogue. “I think she is a very bright person, and had a good message with that song. It’s very similar to this: ‘be you.'”
As the first taste of his forthcoming ninth record, Nichols was attracted to “Freaks Like Me,” written by Monty Criswell, Josh Thompson and Lynn Hutton, because, after nearly 20 years in country music, he found himself shifting quickly to the fringes of the genre. He didn’t want to rap (the closest he gets is a swinging shuffle version of “Baby Got Back” he plays at live shows), he didn’t want to hide his faith and he certainly didn’t want to tone down the deep, velvety twang he’s always showcased in his music.
Nichols released his debut in 1996, a collection of mostly classic-tinged ballads. Since then, he’s scored six Number One hits, including his Roger Miller-esque ode to the cajole of Cuervo, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” At the time, the kitschy honky-tonker was criticized for its downright silly lyricism, but listen to the track now and there’s not a lick of pop anywhere to be found: it may not be serious, but it’s seriously country. Release “Tequila” to radio today, and it likely would never stand a chance.
“People are starting to scratch for more authenticity. It’s not style; it’s good vs. bad. Quality vs. crap.”
“Back then, being edgy meant you were trying to make more of a pop record,” he says of the climate when he first got his start in the genre. “Now it’s completely different. The more traditional you get, the more pushing the envelope you are. Here I am being a bit of a freak by doing something that was completely normal 20 years ago.” As trends drifted toward rock guitars and Nelly drop-ins, Nichols started to feel like that freak — he still wanted to model his career after George Strait and preserve the classic legacy, but he also wanted to avoid singing about the current clichés while remaining relevant at radio.
“We’ve gotten in a rut with the same lyrics over and over again,” he says, putting the blame more on content, not necessarily the sonic direction of modern country. “People are starting to scratch for more authenticity. It’s not style; it’s good vs. bad. Quality vs. crap.”
“Freaks Like Me” blends the two words: pop-sensible production centered around a twangy guitar vamp, with Nichols raising the torch to his southern manners, touting his savior and likening politicians to “a pile of bull.” “Out of style and damn proud,” he sings — and he’s right, to some degree. But he’s also in the strange place of being a mainstream singer in a time where culture is opening up to a more classic approach. Take Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark and Chris Stapleton, all of whom he’s a fan of, all of whom have garnered not only critical acclaim but sizable sales numbers (though not Number One songs). Nichols, however, still wants those hits.
“You want to find the balance between art and commerce,” he says about the ethos behind the follow-up to 2013’s Crickets, for which he’s already completed 10 songs, including a few “sexy” ones at the urging of his wife. There will be plenty of traditional country on there, too, but with an ear for singles. Though Nichols admits that if he didn’t have to worry about radio play or sales numbers, he’d probably “make a record that would end up in the 99-cent bin pretty quick.”
“If I could just make the record I wanted to make, I’d hire the countriest guys in Nashville,” he says. “Kenny Sears, Opry members, the Time Jumpers. Maybe Vince Gill to come sing. And we’d make a country record that probably wouldn’t get sold at all. Lots of twin fiddles, steel guitars, country shuffles and western swing.”
So would he ever go for it? He offers up something between a headshake and a shrug.
“If there are enough people to sign the petition, I’m all for it,” he says, laughing. “And I would love to. But I’m not that rich.”