In true country music fashion, Joe Nichols took the long route to overnight success. The road would eventually lead to Nashville, but there were flat tires, dead ends and an assortment of other frustrations along the way. Impossibly good-looking and with a voice forged in honky-tonk heaven, the singer from Rogers, Ark., should have been fast-tracked to the stratum of stars occupied by Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson. Instead, he had a minor hit in 1996 with "Six of One, Half a Dozen (Of the Other)" and then languished in Music Row's record label limbo.
It wasn't until 2002, when "Man With a Memory," Nichols's first album on a major label, yielded a couple of hits including the chart-topping "Brokenheartsville" and a weepy ballad, "The Impossible," that the promise of his early days began to pan out. That CD was a critical and popular smash, and there's no reason to think his just-released follow-up, "Revelation," won't do just as well on both counts. If the elements for a successful country record include declarations of faith in God, mildly rowdy singalong tracks, true-love torch songs and be-grateful-for-what-you've-got ballads, Nichols can check every box.
"The shade comes free with the tree," he sings on the album's loping opening track, a catalogue of life's simple pleasures that might seem mawkish, even risible, if Nichols didn't sound so sincere and believable. He flirts again with goody-two-shoesness on "Singer in a Band," which warns against comparing the merits of music stars with more deserving types like soldiers, single moms or kids with cancer:
I'm humbled when you take the time
To hear my life in voice and rhyme
But when it comes to heroes I know that I'm
Just a singer in a band
Hard to argue with that sentiment even if it is syrupy. It's a huge relief that after these first two feel-good songs, the tone changes abruptly with "Don't Ruin It for the Rest of Us," a George Jonesy romp that reinforces the notion that misery loves company and can't stand cheery interlopers. There's a fed-up sneer to Nichols's voice as he sings:
So you're getting married, good for you
It's first inning, Braves are down by two
So grab a seat and keep your big mouth shut
And don't ruin it for the rest of us.
Another rocking ditty, "What's a Guy Gotta Do?," has Nichols admitting "the looks-decent wagon didn't pass me by" but still wondering, "What's a guy gotta do to get a girl in this town?"
With only one co-writing credit on the record, Nichols has chosen songs wisely, making wonderful work of Iris DeMent's brutally sad "No Time to Cry" and Harley Allen's tear-jerker "If Nobody Believed in You." The title track, a Bobby Braddock song originally recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1972, is a dark discovery of faith that ends with Nichols moaning, "And if I never go to Hell, Lord, it'll be because you scared it out of me."
If there's a flaw with this record, it's that Nichols is perhaps playing it too safe. Trying to cover all the bases, he may have spread himself too thin. But that's a minor complaint for an album that far surpasses most contemporary country offerings.