In his song “Freaks Like Me,” country star Joe Nichols sings about all the things that set him apart from the crowd.
“I always get the door for a lady. I don’t care if she’s 4 or if she’s 80. I don’t need a Jag, I got a tractor. And I don’t apologize for things that matter,” the Grammy Award nominee sings with a hint of coy humor. “I believe in the USA, 4-wheel drives and Jesus saves.”
Nichols, 39, won’t be the only one espousing those old-fashioned values this weekend at the seventh annual Pozo Stampede. The two-day country music festival is expected to attract a total of 7,000 people to the Pozo Saloon north of Santa Margarita.
Reached on the road in Lake Jackson, Texas, Nichols promised a party for country lovers.
“My No. 1 goal every night is to make sure everybody leaves happy, (to) make sure everybody feels like they got their money’s worth, that they made the right choice by spending the night with us,” he said.
Nichols credits his late father, a truck driver who moonlighted as a bass player, with introducing him to the men he venerates as country greats.
“I always liked the old-school country singers: Merle Haggard, George Strait, George Jones,” said the Arkansas native, who’s known for his rich, resonant baritone voice and traditional edge. “Those guys have always been my idols. Their music spoke to me.”
Asked which aspects specifically attracted him, Nichols praised the simplicity of their lyrics and the authentic nature of their subject matter. (“Crying, dying, cheating, loving, losing,” he listed with a laugh.)
Nichols has spent plenty of time studying those songs. He first hit the airwaves as a country music DJ.
“My audience consisted of about three people — and two of them were related to me,” he joked.
Still, he said, the job gave him a valuable glimpse behind the scenes of the music industry — background business knowledge that served him well early in his career.
My No. 1 goal every night is to make sure everybody leaves happy, (to) make sure everybody feels like they got their money’s worth, that they made the right choice by spending the night with us.
Nichols signed his first record deal with an independent label at age 19. But his self-titled debut album, released in 1996, failed to attract much attention.
So the singer went back to menial jobs — installing cable television, loading moving trucks and selling steaks door-to-door — while he struggled to reestablish himself.
What sustained him through those lean years? “Ignorance and the inability to do anything else,” he said with a laugh.
“I heard ‘no’ quite a bit,” Nichols acknowledged. In fact, he estimates that he heard that word 31 times before a record executive finally said “yes.”
“I had my own place in country music as a singer-songwriter and all it took was a ‘yes,’” he marveled.
2002 saw the release of his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, “Man with a Memory,” featuring the hit singles “The Impossible” and “Brokenheartsville.” (The latter was his first No. 1 hit.) The album netted Nichols an award for top new male vocalist from the Academy of Country Music, plus three Grammy nominations.
Nichols parted ways with his longtime label, Show Dog-Universal Music, and signed with a new record company, Red Bow, in 2012. His latest album, 2013’s “Crickets,” finds the singer exploring a more contemporary pop-rock sound with upbeat songs such as “Yeah” and “Sunny and 75.”
“I can really get kind of buried in my own ideas … and that’s a bad thing,” Nichols said with a laugh. “(I’ve realized) there’s a way to do what (I) do, to be a traditional country artist but still have a mainstream sound and reach a new audience.”
“Freaks Like Me,” the first single from his as-yet-untitled ninth studio album, speaks directly to the modern-day balancing act between time-honored values and new social mores. It was released in September 2015.
In the song penned by Monty Criswell, Josh Thompson and Lynn Hutton, Nichols urges his listeners to “raise a can” to folks who, like him, can’t “tell the difference between a pile of bull and a pile of politicians.”
“Give me old folks and old boots,” he sings, “and deep fried and deep roots and six packs and six strings and two-dollar blue jeans.”
“Freaks Like Me” doesn’t have a particular political agenda, Nichols said. The song, he added, “just speaks to me.”
“It does feel like nowadays to be old school is kind of unusual,” he said. “It feels like the weirder you are, the more normal it is.”
For his part, Nichols is intent on staying true to himself and his sound.
“I try to do something of quality, something good,” he said. “Quality is what people have always looked for. … I think people are still looking for quality music.”
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Pozo Saloon, 90 W. Pozo Road, Santa Margarita
$39.50 to $100 a day, $69.50 to $250 two-day pass
438-4225 or pozostampede.com