Joe Nichols actually started his recording career in 1996 with a self-titled album on the Intersound label. When this album failed to chart any of the singles, Joe was back to square one: a singer without a record deal. Several more years of toiling in Music City finally yielded a second chance for Joe Nichols when he was offered a contract with the mighty Universal South label machine. In 2002, his debut album for the new label, Man With A Memory was released. Influences from the greats of traditional country run amuck this album. These influences are so strong and evident that at times it’s hard not to pinpoint the exact artist and song that the songs on this album owe debt to. Paying tribute to tradition is one thing; bringing tradition along with your own artistic endeavors is another, and Joe Nichols ably accomplishes that here. The results didn’t go unnoticed by the general listening public, or the critics, either. While critics were hailing Nichols the new saviour of country music, fans were busy snapping up a million copies of the album, as it was certified platinum by the RIAA. Man With A Memory charted inside the top 10 of the country albums chart at #9, and it would spawn 4 top 20 singles, including a chart-topper and another top 5.
After getting radio’s attention with the first single, the pat and predictable ‘The Impossible’ (a #3 hit), Joe Nichols hit us with the power-punch of the album’s second single. ‘Brokenheartsville’ did for Joe Nichols what ‘1982’ and ‘Here In The Real World’ had done for Randy Travis and Alan Jackson, respectively: it firmly established him as a capable and willing torch-bearer for the neo-traditional country sound; this time for the new millennium. And where ‘The Impossible’ stumbled along on cliché’s and a terribly boring storyline, ‘Brokenheartsville’ was not only a throwback to the sounds of Randy and Alan, but on its own it delivered on several levels. From the one-two punch of a story about the devil in a Coupe Deville come to steal his lady away to the almost-profane hook, ‘here’s to the past they can kiss my glass, I hope she’s happy with him‘, Joe’s perfectly suited singing voice wraps around the lyric and the layers of steel, a heartbreak country song has never sounded better. I remember hearing it on the radio as it climbed the charts in the Spring of 2003, and after it went to #1, it held the status of the song on the radio that year.
Next up was the exquisite ‘She Only Smokes When She Drinks’. It’s both a shame and a small miracle that a slow-burning song set in a barroom made it to #17 on the country singles chart. The lady who only smokes when she drinks is trying to drink away another heartache, but it’s common knowledge that she only drinks alone. Trying to hook up with her tonight is futile.
Aside from the awesomeness of the second and third singles, Man With A Memory is a showcase of Joe’s vocal talents and good taste in song selection. ‘Joe’s Place’ sounds more like a Kenny Chesney album cut, with its island-themed instrumentals. Here, the singer is describing his favorite hangout, a diverse and eclectic mix of people and things. It’s a fairly forgettable feel-good number, but another reminder of the excellent set of pipes on the singer.
Several steel-drenched tracks tell stories about heartbreak, for one reason or another, while others tell of love just beginning or lasting for decades. In each case, we’re in for more of the neo-traditional sound that makes the album so great. ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet’ invokes the memories of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Chiseled In Stone’, though not to quite the same effect. ‘Can’t Hold A Halo To You’ finds a man professing angels couldn’t possibly be as lovely as his lover.
‘Everything’s A Thing’ is bland, boring and kinda pointless, but it does balance out some of the ballads, if nothing else. ‘Cool To Be A Fool’ doesn’t really offer anything new or memorable either, but its got a nice groove, and the lyrics are less mundane than ‘Thing’s. As the album’s final single, it peaked at #18. The best of the up-tempos, ‘You Can’t Break The Fall’ is a bit of advice to those who haven’t yet had that first major heartbreak. ‘You might as well give up the fight’, Joe croons, before concluding ‘And when it comes, you’ll be down before you knew you fell‘. The snazzy keyboard solos somehow give the song an air of smugness that’s very fitting for the lyrics.
Another favorite of mine is the album closer and title track. The production choice here is one of more ‘Marina Del Rey’ or ‘Miami, My Amy’, but the lyrics are the best part anyway. The bartender is our eyes through this narrative about the lonely souls down at the local tavern, as he watches love grow and die and offers: ‘When you’re livin’ for the love and the love doesn’t last, you get a man with a memory, a woman with a past’.
The theme of this album could have been ‘honky tonks of America’, and the decidedly traditional production and Nichols’ smooth, drawling baritone make nearly every track an essential listen. On subsequent releases, Joe hasn’t quite yet captured lightning in a bottle like he did with this debut. Man With A Memory is his magnum opus so far, and a five-star effort from start to finish. With it, Joe Nichols hit the scene with a sound that was both reminiscent of Merle Haggard, and paid great tribute to the legacy the Hag and others left behind.
Man With A Memory is readily available from amazon and all other retailers.