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MAN WITH A MEMORY, and the reason his next album was one of the most intensely personal releases the genre's ever seen is also the explanation for a new album that is as different from REVELATION as day is from night: Joe Nichols is a true recording artist. As such, he reveals himself through his music, exploring the deepest reaches of his own humanity to inevitably create an emotional bond with any listener who accepts that expression of emotions and experiences. And because Nichols seems incapable of approaching his art and craft with anything less than that unabashed honesty, III is as much an extension of who and where he is as was its predecessor. "Looking back it's one of the blackest times in my life," Nichols says of the period between his first two album releases. "I climbed pretty deep into my soul and didn't really get out of that little box. REVELATION showed how spiritual and emotional I could get, but now I want to show the other side, which is funny and fun-loving. This album is about blue skies." Sunshine seemed to be the prevailing forecast as Nichols exploded into country music with two multi-week No. 1 singles from his Universal South debut. "The Impossible" and "Brokenheartsville" quickly pushed album sales to gold and beyond, garnered four Grammy nominations, landed him on major tours and put his face in front of millions on major national television outlets. But there was a dark lining to Nichols' cloudless sky. The kid from Arkansas, who inherited his love of country at the feet of semi-professional pickers including his grandfather, uncles and truck driving father Mike, was facing personal tragedy. Six days before MAN WITH A MEMORY's release, at what might have been a moment of immense familial pride, Joe's dad succumbed to a long battle with a rare pulmonary illness at age 46. Rather than cancel an earlier scheduled performance on the Grand Ole Opry, the day after the funeral the entire Nichols clan decided to drive to Nashville to watch Joe sing his father's favorite Merle Haggard song, "Footlights," as a tribute. In spite of this great personal loss, in the months that followed, Nichols' professional balloon climbed ever higher. But at the same time Nichols retreated into himself and his music, emerging with a heartbreakingly honest second album that was anchored by the Iris DeMent-penned "No Time To Cry." The song couldn't have told the story of Nichols' two year journey any better if he'd written it himself. As cathartic as the recording process had been, the music business product cycle conspired to keep Nichols in that intensely personal headspace. Making the album helped him purge a lot of feelings that he then was forced to revisit night after night on stage and in every interview he conducted. "Talking about that emotional strain with everybody on the planet actually helped me get past it," Nichols says. "I wouldn't say it was depression but there was a kind of dwelling on some of the worst things that happened to me. REVELATION was exactly what was going on in my chest, but at some point you need to move on. Music is also supposed to be fun. On this record, I really had the desire again to jump back into some good time, fun loving songs." And that's precisely what he's done, opening III with the unfettered luminescence of "Size Matters (Someday)," which Nichols describes with a wry smile as "a big ole hit." The open air sound continues on "Freedom Feels Like Lonely" and turns to humor with the first single, "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off." More than song selection, Nichols' fresh approach to the album includes bringing in accomplished producers Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney) and Byron Gallimore (Tim McGraw) to complement his work with longtime collaborator Brent Rowan. Upbeat energy and lively tempos are the rule, as heard on "That's What Love'll Get You," a cover of Gene Watson's "Should I Come Home" and the bar bash "Honky Tonk Girl." Joe's affinity for pulling heartstrings doesn't go untapped, however. "I'll Wait For You" is as stunning a ballad as anything he's ever recorded, while Steve Earle's "My Old Friend The Blues" is a stone country lament. III closes with "Just A Little More," the album's most revealing personal statement and one of two songs Nichols co-wrote. "Anybody can get lost in themselves," he says of the song, and the period in his life it describes. "In my mind, as long as I did what was right for me, I was cool. But that's not the way it works. You have to think about other people and take their feelings into account." "I started doing that and realized there's a whole world outside of my own little mind. I was taking things to the extreme no matter what I did. I went at it as fast and as hard as I could go. I didn't realize I was hurting a lot of people, so I changed things up. I'm healthier, I feel great. It's almost like springtime. I even cut my hair. I was ready for that." His emergence from a long, cold winter of grief may signal the completion of a rite of passage. The wide-eyed boy who recorded MAN WITH A MEMORY, who was nearly crushed beneath a weight of grief, has risen with the revelation that, for the first time, he is the man in his life. Putting boundaries around boyish pursuits isn't about deprivation, it's about finding the equilibrium that opens the door to contentment. "Life on the road is very different from a normal, day to day life, and sometimes that surrealistic existence can have an effect on you-you tend to forget that's not really how things are supposed to be," Nichols said. "But there comes a point where you have to pace yourself and find a place in your mind where you can be real. You have to be able to say to yourself, I was raised by a good mother. I need to find a church on Sunday. I need to say please and thank you, yes sir and no ma'am. Do the little things because that's part of being an adult." His new album, then, is simply the latest window into Joe Nichols' life. "This is the most fun I've had with music so far," he says. "Before I worried about impressing people, one-upping the next guy or I was so deep down in my own emotions I couldn't see through. This time I had fun in the studio, shooting videos, photo shoots, finding songs, the whole thing. It's the first time I've said, 'I really love doing this.' Until recently it's been about the job and not about enjoying the experience." That new perspective is helping him find a balance. It's also lifting the twin burdens of grief and expectation he's carried for virtually his entire career. "The pressure's off of me personally because I've taken it off myself," he says. "I've realized when you stop carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and just do what comes naturally, it will work itself out. That's what I've done. Not just with my career but with my life."