Joe Nichols is sensing a resurgence in what, for a lack of a better phrase, we'll call "real country music" — songs that harken back to performers like George Jones or Conway Twitty.
Nichols couldn't be happier about it.
Audiences, he said in an interview Wednesday with The E, are increasingly hungry for "real country music, and I'm happy to go out there and play it."
Nichols will be pouring another shot of that pure country when he takes the stage Thursday night at the Linn County Fair. The concert starts at 8:30 p.m. with opener Elvis Monroe scheduled to perform at 7 p.m.
The 42-year-old Nichols, a native of Arkansas, attributes some of his interest in music to his father, Michael Nichols, a trucker who played bass in local bands. His dad made sure that Nichols listened to and learned about artists like Marty Robbins and Keith Whitley, and you can hear some of those influences in the music that he makes today.
By the time he reached high school, Nichols said, he had narrowed down his career paths to two: Music or baseball.
"My strengths kind of dictated where I went to there," he joked, and so he opted for music, releasing his first album, a self-titled affair, in 1996. The album sold poorly, and Nichols was dropped by his record label. To pay the bills, he worked at a variety of jobs like moving furniture and selling steaks door-to-door.
But he landed another recording deal and released his second album, "Man with a Memory," in July 2002. The leadoff single, "The Impossible," went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and a followup, "Brokenheartsville," notched his first No. 1.
Other No. 1 singles followed, including "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," "Gimmie That Girl," "Sunny and 75" and "Yeah." Fans likely will hear some, if not all of those songs, performed live when Nichols and his band take the stage Thursday.
After decades of writing songs, Nichols has learned a lot about the craft, but one thing remains constant: "You have to have a really special idea" when you start writing, he said, either a strong lyric or a compelling musical hook. "Sometimes that drives you to get the song done."
A great hook is important, he said, but "the meaning of the song comes first," and pointed to what he called "the greatest country song of all time," the George Jones classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
And there's a lesson to be had from that Jones song, he said: "If you've got a great record, it'll find its way to the public."
Nichols' most recent album is "Never Gets Old," released in 2017, but he said he's working on some new songs and has worked to record about a half-dozen of them. Some of those songs, he said, are "really powerful and very emotional," and you would expect no less from the man who recorded "My Whiskey Years" and "The Impossible."
But he's also recorded what he called "a silly song or two," and likes being able to add lighter fare to his set list. "There's a time for both," he said.
In concert, Nichols said, he and his band stick to the basics: "Well, we just play country music for an hour and a half," he said, and likely will work some of the new songs into the show.
And, on stage, Nichols tries to remember an important lesson: "The song matters most. I try to stay out of the way."