Joe Nichols will help kick off the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo this Saturday, and he's a fan of the sport, but please don't mistake him for a bullrider.
"I rode a bull actually when I was in high school, and that was the moment I knew that I should be a singer," the Arkansas native says with a laugh. "Country singing's a lot better than country living."
It's a path that's worked for Nichols. At 34, he's received three Grammy nominations over the years and in January released a greatest hits album, including his three No. 1 Billboard country songs: "Brokenheartsville," "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" and "Gimmie That Girl."
Nichols admits it's a bit strange to be in his early 30s and putting out an album of greatest hits.
"It kinda, for a moment there, makes me feel a little bit older than I should," he says, "but I think it's more about the music than it is, you know, about my age and everything. I've come to realize that it's just kind of a closing of the first chapter of my music career."
That second chapter is rolling along nicely. Nichols just released a new single, "Take It Off," which he says has attracted a response as positive as anything since "Tequila." A new album is scheduled for September, and includes a "vocal event," with a couple of artists whose names he can't yet reveal, but who he says he's followed for a long time.
Which means they're not going to be some of country music's newest stars, like 2011 American Idol winner Scotty McCreery or runner-up Lauren Alaina. When asked what he thinks of two country singers making it all the way to the end, Nichols says he sees it as reflecting a growing interest in the genre, but adds that it could be a detriment to American Idol.
Part of the show's allure, he says, is the array of different artists and genres. "If American Idol has anything to say about it," he continues, "you probably won't see another country one come out of it next year. But I think it's awesome for the exposure for country music, to be that mainstream nowadays. It shows you where we're at, as opposed to 20 years ago when we were just trying to break through that glass ceiling of crossing over into mainstream."
Of course, some great artists helped pave the way, guys like Merle Haggard and George Strait. Nichols has been called "heir" to both, and while he says it's a great compliment, Nichols does cringe a bit over the label.
"I don't know that anybody can ever be heirs. ... George Strait is George Strait. Merle Haggard is Merle Haggard. And those guys own their legacy. ... So while I understand it's a very, very flattering comment — those guys taught me how to sing — at the same time, I'm realistic, and those guys made their mark being who they were, and hopefully that's what I do.
"I would actually not like to be the next something, I'd like to be the first something. The first me."