Joe Nichols’ Crickets

I always look forward to a new Joe Nichols album. I’ve had a soft spot for this son of the Arkansas Ozarks since I did a short profile on him for the dear, departed Country Music magazine back around ’02 or thereabouts. His albums are all frustratingly inconsistent, and I only really appreciate his every third or fourth single (which, come to think of it, is about the same rate the country audience has decided to champion them). He’s a George Strait acolyte–as can be heard pretty clearly on three of his early hits, “Brokenheartsville,” “She Only Smokes When She Drinks” and “Cool to Be a Fool”–a country pop balladeer of neo New Traditionalist persuasion who’s still capable of cutting contemporary-sounding country (nee classic) rock like “It Ain’t No Crime,” a pretty swell anthem of indolence and just-glad-to-be-alive lack of ambition.

Strait aside, Nichols’ real hero, and this is part of why I’m taking him up here now, is my man Merle Haggard. Nichols has always hinted at tastes broader than modern country radio–he’s ably covered over the years both that old Gene Watson hit “Farewell Party” and Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues”–but even with newer songs he can seem to channel Hag the way Merle did his own main man, Lefty. The title track to Nichols’ 2009 album Old Things New is my pick for the best Merle Haggard ballad-style recording of this century: It’s got the fatalism, the nostalgia, just that whole Haggardy/human sense of the sadness of time passing–and that’s just the melody.  That is, the best in that vein not actually written or recorded by Merle Haggard (It’s a Bill Anderson/Buddy Cannon/Paul Overstreet co-write). And I’m betting Nichols’ covers of “No Time to Cry” and “If I Could Only Fly” are covers of Merle’s covers of those songs, not of versions by songwriters Iris Dement and Blaze Foley, respectively.

But while Nichols’ Haggard jones has been apparent all along, I don’t believe he’s ever recorded a Merle song until now. His new album Crickets is a typically mixed affair–and pretty representative of where we’re at now in mainstream country music. Its first single is the unmemorable “Sunny and 75,” a weather song in which the elements are most definitely not, as in Merle’s “Chill Factor” or George Strait’s “Chill of an Early Fall,” a metaphor for individual human misery.  (Yes, country radio has sunk to this: We’re literally singing about the weather.) Along the same contemporary lines, album opener “Just Let Me Fall in Love with You” and the closing title track are both about being out in the country, hearing crickets in the moonlight and…canoodling! You’ve heard them before. And in between there’s the obligatory number about cracking open a cold one (“Open a Can”), and a randy verging-on-creepy pick-up number called “Hee Haw”: “Show me your bush hog, I’ll show you my John Deere…Show me your yee haw, I’ll show you my hee haw.”  It does not include the line “Let me do some pickin’ and I’ll leave you grinnin’,” which seems like a missed opportunity.

Nichols does all of these as well as they can be done, I suppose. He has a great, warm buttery baritone rising up to a tender tenor, and he knows how to phrase. And hats off to “Old School Country Song,” which updates country verities for the “cyberspace” and “iPod” age. But the actual old school country song that follows had me staring at my speakers in disbelief. Nichols sings…Merle Haggard’s “Footlights,” perhaps the bitterest, most world-weary, most anti-show business, most tired-of-going-through-the-same-old-motions song ever to be a country hit. Joe falls short of Merle’s anguish–he hasn’t been at it as long for one thing; he changes “I’m 41 years old…” to “31”–but it’s a mean performance, nonetheless. [Added on 10/8: The press packet tells me that Nichols liked to practice the song in his bedroom as a boy and that it was a special favorite of his father, who passed away in 2003.]

I hope there’s more of this to come. There are all sorts of clues of late that something may be about to give down in Nashville. Country music people–by which I mean singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, as well as a significant portion of the audience and we’ll just have to see about radio–are beginning to get tired of nothing but country-moonlight-cricket songs and cracking-open-another-cold-one songs, not to mention truck songs and all the other let-me-show-you-how-country-I-am hits. I’m taking Nichols choosing, in this moment, of “Footlights as just one more tiny sign that change is potentially afoot. It is for sure yet another piece of evidence that the Merle Haggard songbook is still alive and kicking.

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