David Nail does not like to fly. Which didn't help him much when he had to be in Boise, Idaho, for a performance in mid-July.
"I think without a doubt it was the most difficult travel day. I was borderline panic attack. I went through about four or five Sprite Zeros. I don't know what it was, but I was real uncomfortable. We had to go through Vegas and it was a really rough landing. I laid down on the floor of the Vegas airport, which of all the airports to be laying down in, is probably the worst," Nail says, calling from Boise the day after his nerve-fraying cross-country journey. "Some days I can get on a plane and not think about it. And other days, I can't think of anything else I'd rather not do."
Nail, one of country's most gifted vocalists, is also one of the genre's most transparent. He'll readily discuss anything and everything, unfiltered — from his fear of planes to the depression and anxiety he learned to keep in check while recording his latest album, I'm a Fire, the follow-up to 2011's The Sound of a Million Dreams.
"Genetically, my entire life, I've been starting out in the negative. But with the help of medication and with the help of counseling, I learned to feel like I didn't have to cure all my problems and had to be perfect all the time," Nail says candidly.
For the Missouri native, there are no secrets — except for one. The I'm a Fire deep track "The Secret" has had fans trying to crack the mystery of Nail and co-writer Scooter Carusoe's lyrics since the album's release. Watch an exclusive performance of the song above.
Set in the aftermath of a funeral, the ballad finds the narrator contemplating a private bond between him and the deceased, a woman who once carried a "child with another man's name." It's all very "Ode to Billie Joe."
"From the moment the record came out, people were automatically drawn to that song and story. It's funny because the very first part of the song is an idea I wanted to write about for a long time. I had lost a classmate in my freshman year of college that I had grown up with and graduated high school with. At 18 years old, you're not prepared to deal with something that tragic, with someone your own age," Nail says. "At some point during the writing, it took a hard right turn and went someplace I had no intention of the song going. And thus 'The Secret' was born."
Despite his open-book persona, Nail remains tight-lipped about what really went down outside the church in the lyrics. Though he welcomes any and all interpretations.
"I'd say about half the people have it figured out pretty accurate. And then five percent of the people are just in another atmosphere," he says. "There have been people along the way who have had different ideas about it, and I could totally see how those made sense once they explained it."
It's expected for fans to latch onto I’m a Fire radio singles "Whatever She's Got," which went to Number One, and current hit "Kiss You Tonight," but Nail believes their desire to invest in a track like "The Secret" speaks to the depth of the album.
"I'm so proud of this record and it's come at such an important part of my life. I just turned 35 and as much as I am not anywhere close to a new artist, I feel like I have a new lease on life," Nail says.
On September 11th, he'll summon that energy when he kicks off his headlining I’m a Fire Tour in Oxford, Mississippi. The trek includes stops in New York, Boston and two dates in Nail's home state. "You look at cities like Boston, where we started four or five years ago, and there'd be 50 people in the crowd. Now we can do close to two thousand seats on our own," says Nail, whose crowds, a mix of country boys and women transfixed by the singer's emotive voice and movie-star looks, can be as diverse as his own musical tastes. He would love to collaborate with Jay Z and cites Ryan Adams' "La Cienaga Just Smiled," from Adams' 2001 Gold, as his favorite song of all-time.
He's also a passionate Kings of Leon fan, recently tweeting that their "Cold Desert" is his second favorite song. "It's just a song that is really eerie. It has a real lonesome feel," he raves — unaware that he may also be describing "The Secret."
"'The Secret' was a song that was written well in advance of The Sound of a Million Dreams record. Even back then, people who heard it, they'd comment on it and try to figure out what it's exactly about," Nail says. "I always loved songs like that where you make your own interpretation of it. It's good to finally have one of my own."