As Joe Nichols began work on a brand new batch of old-school country music, he found himself looking back for inspiration. Back to his early career, back to true friends and the simple perfection of pure country music … back to things that never get old.
“Full circle is the term I would use,” the Arkansas native says about his new project, fittingly titled Never Gets Old. “The whole theme of the record is ‘Let’s get back to where it all began for me. Let’s get back to where my passion for music began.’”
From 2002’s Man With a Memory on, Nichols harnessed that passion as a steady hit maker, racking up six Number Ones and eight Top 10s, including chart-topping modern classics like “Brokenheartsville” and “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” He’s a four-time Grammy nominee, an ACM, Billboard, CMA, and CMT Award winner, and his last album offering, Crickets, kept the success going, sending both “Yeah” and “Sunny and 75” to Platinum-certified Number One status.
But then four years went by – the longest span between releases of his career – as Nichols dug in to reconnect with his calling. In Never Gets Old, he’s done just that.
“Instead of us making something that’s built for instant success, the idea was ‘Let’s make something we’re gonna be proud of 30 years from now,’” Nichols explains. “I’m thinking less about what will work, and more about what I love.”
What Nichols loves has always been obvious. Growing up around friends who were into anything but country, he was different. Nichols was pulled in by the realness of singers like Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins, Don Williams, Keith Whitley and George Strait, and that connection would inform his whole career. Even now with Never Gets Old, he’s happy to go against the grain.
“Hopefully the stuff we’re doing lasts a lot longer than today’s typical country record,” he says. “But I think the irony is that retro sounds are actually what’s fresh and new right now. All we had to do was what felt natural.”
Doing what felt natural has never been easier, as Nichols returned to the approach of his early albums. Working with Crickets producer Mickey Jack Cones and longtime collaborator and friend Brent Rowan– fiddles and steel guitar tempered tasteful modern sounds on nearly every mix, while that understated (but unmistakeable) baritone felt “better than it’s been in 10 years.”
Saying his goal was to sing with the most feeling possible and let whatever came out of his soul land on the record, Nichols ended up with 12 tracks that bound between spirit and sentiment, courage and cleverness, romance and rowdy fun, all wrapped in the throwback style he’s spent a lifetime pursuing.
Lead single and title track “Never Gets Old” points the way. Written by Connie Harrington and Steve Moakler, Nichols says it reminds him of the mid-’80s country era, a song that “wasn’t necessarily deep, but it was meaningful.”
With a swaying front-porch groove, it features laid-back acoustic guitars and accordions that waft in with the breeze, as Nichols ponders the moments that keep love fresh – like watching his wife laugh, holding her hand, and ending each day in a tender embrace. Nichols says he knew it was special when all three of his kids started singing along the first time they heard it.
Tracks like “This Side of the River,” “Billy Graham’s Bible,” and “We All Carry Something” are charged with soul-stirring power, while “Diamonds Make Babies” and “So You’re Saying” inject the project with heartwarming fun.
But it’s a bit of carefree craziness adapted from his live show which is sure to leave listeners with the biggest smile – an honest-to-goodness country cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hip-hop favorite, “Baby Got Back.”
What began as a joke between Nichols and his band years ago went on to become a beloved moment onstage, and now it caps off Never Gets Old, proving that whatever this veteran song stylist sings, it’s gonna sound country. Nichols and his team invited comedian Darren Knight and his “Southern Momma” character to revamp the iconic spoken-word parts, and what came out in the studio was so much fun it had to be included on the album.
“Everybody was laughing that day,” he says. “It was out-of-the-blue and we never thought we’d put it on a record. But when it was done I was like ‘This is nuts, but this actually kind of feels like it should have been a country record … a goofy one, but still.’”
When Joe Nichols released his debut album, he was barely 20 years old and trying to put his youth behind him. Looking back now, he laughs at that thought, but some things never change. Back then he was scrappy and defiant about his quest to revive traditional country, and that drive remains. In fact, he says it’s one of those things that never gets old.
“I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” he says. “With my first album, there was this apprehension of ‘Is country music ready for a traditional country record?’ It was a little bit scary, but we went for it, and with Never Gets Old I still feel the exact same passion – it’s like ‘Let’s give it to them anyway.’ Now, I think country music is ready.”
“Some of these songs were like carving a statue,” says Rodney Atkins. “You put a whole lot of stuff on there and then keep chipping away, so you only have left what you need—you figure out what’s just noise, what’s taking away, how do you make the lyrics really be heard. Sometimes you have to go way out there so you can come back.”
Atkins’ fifth studio album, Caught Up in the Country, reveals an artist who is confident enough to know that making your best music can require patience and experimentation. While his storied career has reached such heights as being named the Top New Male Vocalist at the 2006 ACM awards and seeing his single “Watching You” become the Number One Song of the Decade according to Country Aircheck, it’s been more than seven years since Take a Back Road, his last record of new material. But Atkins knew that this time, he wanted to bring his songs further than he had ever gone before.
“I’ve never taken it lightly,” he says, “but with some of the other albums, I got to take my time for part of the album. But then when you get that first single finished, you gotta go, and you start working at a faster pace for the second half of the album. This time, I got to take that time with every song.”
The results, he believes, are the most daring collection of his career, touching on emotions and sounds which continue to expand his range—from the twangy celebration of the album’s title track (featuring the roof-raising vocals of The Fisk Jubilee Singers) to the slow-burn cover of Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” And with six Number One singles, eight Top Five singles, and over 13 million units sold, Atkins sees that his track record validates his approach.
“As I was working on this album, we put out the Greatest Hits,” he says of his 2015 compilation album. “Country Aircheck amassed the most played artists of the decade, and I was the second-most-played male solo artist—but I hadn’t even released a single in five of those years. So that was really the justification for taking time to work on this record.
“To see that all those songs were still relevant,” he continues, “still fit in with what was happening musically, even if they were a decade old—that was a foundation to build up from and keep going.”
The songs on Caught Up in the Country date as far back as 2013, when Atkins started with “All My Friends Are Drunk” (an “anti-party party song,” he calls it). “As I worked on that, I started writing, and you sort of get an idea of what you’re looking for,” he says. “It starts defining itself, the picture you’re trying to build. So you ask yourself if you’re covering the gamut of how this whole body of work will make somebody feel. With an album, you’re building a house, not just trying to build a back porch.”
That same year, Atkins married singer Rose Falcon, a relationship that determined much of the music’s direction. “She just encouraged me on so many different levels,” he says. “I really fell back in love with singing, and she was so important to that. I remember we had a meeting with the label, and I’d written a song called ‘So Good,’ and they said ‘You’ve been successful at making a song sound like a hit, but I don’t know if people really know what you’re capable of.’ Just being vulnerable—the biggest impact Rose has had is just me putting myself out there.”
His new marriage was also an influence on the kind of material Atkins wanted to record. “I’d never sung a real love song,” he says. “Every love song I had done was actually about fighting or breaking up. So I knew I wanted to record a love song, but still be gritty and palpable—a love song from a guy has to have some testosterone.” In addition, Falcon’s vocals can be heard throughout the album, and features on the duets “Figure Out You (Riddle)” and “Everybody’s Got Something.”
Looking to add some different elements to the sound, Atkins and longtime collaborator Ted Hewitt brought in Blake Bollinger as a co-producer, and Bollinger offered up the song “Burn Something,” which became the album’s opening track. “That fit the profile of the kind of love song I was looking for,” says Atkins. “Not just blue skies and no bills, because that’s not what love is. A song like that motivates people to be in love—to work, dig, express themselves, and be vulnerable.”
Atkins started to think more about the sound of voices on his records with Take a Back Road. “We experimented with trying to capture a live background feel,” he says. “I had the singers do their parts at the same time on the same microphone, then switch sides and double their parts, and then do it again, to create a big chorus of real human voices with lots of texture. We wanted to do that on a lot of these songs, so the girls sang their big parts and then my wife came in and brought in the country.”
From “Young Man,” which continues a series of songs inspired by Atkins’ eldest son as he grows up, to “My Life,” the powerful story of Falcon’s beloved grandmother, Caught Up in the Country is made up of what Atkins calls “life songs, not just ditties.” Musically, the project demonstrates similar ambition, whether sampling the sound of Atkins kicking the front door of his truck and making that into a drum track, adding Midi guitar sounds emulating strings and piano on “So Good,” or even the remix of the title song by Dutch DJ Sam Feldt, which became a surprising viral hit.
“I’d get up at four in the morning and drive around back roads, listening to make sure sonically it was what I wanted,” says Atkins. “When you work on something this much, and you’re around it every day, I realized that if I get tired of working on a song, the odds are that people will get sick of listening to it.”
With a toddler at home and—as dramatically revealed in the lyric video for “My Life”—another baby on the way, Rodney Atkins is energized and driven, both personally and creatively, in entirely new ways. With Caught Up in the Country, one of country music’s biggest stars is starting his next chapter.
“I needed to try things, not limit myself to just sing the notes and get out of the way,” he says. “I wanted to really tell a story in the shape and the melody of these songs—there’s more diversity on this record than I’ve ever had before. And to really take time to figure out the nuances because ultimately, it’s a whole bunch of nuances that add up to make something special.”