Living marks Nichols’ first album since 2017’s Never Gets Old, and the first project for his new label home, Quartz Hill Records, launched by Benny Brown, Paul Brown and Jason Sellers. The move reunites Nichols with former BBR Music Group founder Benny Brown. Nichols signed to Broken Bow imprint Red Bow Records in 2012, and released two albums for the label. In 2017, BMG acquired BBR Music Group, and soon after, Nichols and Red Bow parted ways.
“After the divorce kind of settled with Red Bow, I started piddling around in the studio,” Nichols says, calling from his home in Tyler, Texas. “I kind of wandered for a minute. I cut a song here and there, demoed a couple of songs to see if they felt right. Then, in late 2020, Benny called me and said, ‘I’m starting a new label. Do you want to join me?’ I told him, ‘Put me in coach. I’m ready to play.”
He laughs. “We’ve gotten close over the years, and he’s always been a very, very fair person to me.”
For two decades, Nichols has built his career on great songs and a traditional-leaning country sound, landing five Billboard Country Airplay No. 1s, including “Brokenheartsville,” “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and “Gimme That Girl.” He hopes to add to that tally with his latest single, “Home Run.” Nichols, an ardent St. Louis Cardinals fan, loved the baseball references in the track, which he credits Brown with finding.
“He found the song a couple of years ago, before he decided to start a new label — there was also ‘’One Two Step Closer,’” Nichols says. “We kind of built on the album from those.”
Nichols welcomed not only his wife Heather and their daughters Dylan and Georgia to be part of the video for “Home Run,” but also his mother Robin and his sister Kelli.
“It was fun for me because I got to see them be the star of the show that day,” Nichols recalls. “They got to do the hair, makeup, outfits, and hear the director say ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ and all that kind of stuff. I was tickled watching that. My wife, Heather, she’s been around for many videos that I’ve done and it’s never been a big thing to her. But the kids, it’s a big deal to them.”
Given Nichols’ adherence to more traditional country sounds, the album opens with “Brokenhearted,” a sly, yet light-hearted dig at the current state of country music. “I say it’s a playful way to say what people kind of feel these days,” he says. “Not in a heavy way, but like, ‘Hey man, can’t I go to a bar and drown in my misery like I used to with country music?’ It’s a fun-sounding song that says, ‘Ain’t nobody brokenhearted in country music anymore.’”
Though Nichols says when he’s listening to music, he’s most likely to turn to classics from artists like Keith Whitley, he does have a few favorite newcomers. “I like Luke Combs and Cody Johnson,” Nichols says. “But more than anything, I listen to the old-school stuff. Randy Travis’ Storms of Life has been on my phone in my truck for the past three days in a row now.”
He also includes “Hawaii on Me,” a song written by Chris Janson that previously appeared on Janson’s 2019 album Real Friends.
“Me, Heather and Benny Brown were all listening to songs at Benny’s house, going through stacks of CDs of songs that he had been pitched,” he says. “He’s got a great ear for songs, which is a really rare thing with guys that are great with business and know the industry. He can hear song after song, and still see the special qualities of each song. We found this song and I didn’t know Chris had put it on his album until we had already tracked it for our session. But still, I was like, ‘Man, this song is too good to leave off.’”
He also welcomes longtime friend Blake Shelton on another album track, “I Got Friends That Do.”
“We’ve always wanted to do a song together, but the timing just never worked out until now,” Nichols says. “This felt like such a radio song and I knew I would record it. I sent it to Blake, he liked it and said, ‘Give me about a week or so to get to the studio in Los Angeles and I’ll put a vocal on it to see what you think.’ We talked through it and listening to it, it sounds like we’re right there in the room together.”
Outside of the new album, Shelton isn’t Nichols’ only recent collaborator. He also got a call from country music legend Dolly Parton, inviting him to join her for ‘Lost and Found,’ a song featured on Parton’s companion album to her upcoming novel Run, Rose, Run. Nichols and Parton previously collaborated on a version of the folk song “If I Were a Carpenter,” included on Parton’s 2005 album Those Were the Days.
“It has this great throwback feel,” Nichols says, noting that he and Parton recorded their parts separately. “When I was in the studio, when she asked me to do this, I was like, ‘That makes me feel about as good as anything ever right there, that you would think of me and call me to ask me to be a part of your album.’ She’s such a great, kind, caring, thoughtful individual. She still believes in handwritten notes and phone calls. That reminds me, I’ve got to give Blake a handwritten note.”
The album’s feel-good title track proved to be a full-circle moment for Nichols and one of the song’s writers, Dave Cohen, who also played keyboards on the track. Nichols had hired Cohen for his band around 2009 and a few years ago, Cohen switched from road to studio work.
“On the last tracking session for the album, I walked in and Dave’s there leading the session that day. I just thought, ‘This is such a cool moment, that one of his first gigs was on the road with me and he’s leading the session on my new album,” Nichols says. “Later that afternoon, one of my producers, Derek George, told us we had extra time in the session to record an extra song. When we played ‘Good Day For Living,’ Dave was like, ‘Hey, I wrote this.’ It was him playing the demo and everything, so it was one of those great moments. When I listen to it, I can literally hear myself smiling when I was doing the track.”
Nichols is on the road for his 26-date Good Day For Living tour, which launched Feb. 12 in Jackson, Miss., and wraps in September. Over the years, Nichols and his wife have learned how to balance life raising kids with Nichols’ time on the road.
“My wife is a rock star,” Nichols says. “She’s a really reliable person, and she wears a lot of hats. When I’m at home, I try to pick up as much slack as I can. I take over all the duties that she has to do by herself when I go out and work. I feel like being gone a lot, I have to rely on her to be mom and dad. And while I’m at home, I want to provide her as much of a break as possible. That’s how we operate in the spring, summer and fall. In the wintertime, we get time away from early December through about now, about mid-February and we get to focus on more family then.”
Nichols is already dreaming about new projects for Quartz Hill, including a holiday album.
“I’ve talked about doing another Christmas album full of kids’ Christmas songs,” Nichols says. “The first Christmas album I did [in 2004] was more of the traditional songs, like ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Silent Night.’ I would love to do an album with ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ stuff like that. I don’t know how quickly that’s going to happen, but that’s something I want to do.”