NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Before Joe Nichols sings a note, women begin rushing the Grand Ole Opry stage.

Young women, old women, teens, preteens – they all stream to the front with cameras. “We love you Joe,” several shout in unison.

Nichols, a tall guy with long dark hair and a hoop earring, cracks a joke about bringing his fan club along and then puts his deep voice to Merle Haggard’s “The Farmer’s Daughter.”

Good looks aside, the 27-year-old singer is at a pivotal place in his young career.

The success of his big-label debut “Man With a Memory” made him a torchbearer for country music’s neotraditionalists. He visited classic country themes and did it with a rich, irresistible baritone. His no-frills style drew comparisons to Haggard, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis.

His follow-up “Revelation,” released Tuesday, continues the hard country sound but with a more somber tone – a reaction, he says, to his father’s death from a rare lung disease in 2002.

“There are a few more ballads on this one,” Nichols said backstage at the Opry. “I think it’s a little more emotional, maybe a little more spiritual at times.”

Artists who make a splashy debut face a lot of pressure with the next album. The schedule is tighter, the expectations higher and the demands greater. Some hit a ditch.

Singer Deana Carter sold 5 million copies of her 1996 debut “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” Her 1998 follow-up yielded half a million in sales.

“The sophomore project for any artist is often the determining factor in the public’s mind to see if the artist is a one-trick pony or has something more durable and versatile,” said Neil Pond, editorial director for Country Music Weekly magazine.

Nichols doesn’t seem worried. He says he was more confident and relaxed this time around.

“A lot of people say making the second album after a successful first is pretty scary,” he said. “But we thought the exact opposite. It felt like the pressure was off. We’d already proven ourselves with one album, and as long as we keep doing the same thing I think we’ll be OK.”

The 11 new songs range from the barroom romp “Don’t Ruin It For the Rest of Us” to the dark title track, a Waylon Jennings cover in which a man wakes from a bad dream and vows to God to change his ways.

In between, Nichols ruminates on misplaced hero worship (“Singer in a Band”), death (“Farewell Party,” “No Time to Cry”), failing parental responsibility (“Things Like That”) and eroding religious faith (“If Nobody Believed in You”).

He co-wrote one song, the lighthearted “What’s a Guy Gotta Do” with its snappy word play, “So I bumped into a pretty girl’s shoppin’ cart / But all I did was break her eggs and bruise her artichoke hearts.”

But his thoughts are most apparent in the closing track, Iris DeMent’s “No Time to Cry,” about a musician who is too busy, or unwilling, to grieve for his dead father.

“It just reflects my life at this time more than anything I’ve heard,” he said. “It’s an emotional moment on the album for me, personally.”

His father, Mike Nichols, was an Arkansas truck driver who moonlighted as a bass player in a country band. He had a big influence on his son’s musical pursuits and was alive just long enough to see Nichols’ star begin to rise. When Nichols made his Grand Ole Opry debut in March 2002, his father, only 46, was at the side of the stage.

“Of course he was in a wheelchair then, he was pretty sick,” Nichols recalls. “After I was done we cried together and he told me that was one of his proudest moments.”

That Opry show was a career marker for Nichols. He had left Rogers, Ark., for Nashville when he was just 18. He signed a deal with an independent record label and released a self-titled album in 1996.

The album flopped (Nichols says now he was too green) and he kicked around Nashville playing clubs and working a series of odd jobs, including bartender, cable guy, UPS truck loader and, for one day, door-to-door steak salesman.

After 31 record company rejections, he was finally signed in January 2002 by startup label Universal South. Not only was the label and the artist new, so was the producer, Brent Rowan, an ace studio musician who had never produced an album before.

Somehow, the combination clicked. “Man With a Memory” has sold nearly a million copies. The first single, “The Impossible,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart while the follow-up “Brokenheartsville” went No. 1.

And in one of the industry’s real shockers that year, both Nichols and the album were nominated for Grammys – pitting him against superstars Jackson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks.

If Nichols can repeat his success, few will be as surprised this time around.

“Joe’s a keeper of the flame,” said Brian Philips, general manager of Country Music Television. “In every era we need those and we need new ones. There will always be a place for staunch traditionalists with great chops and a great interpretive style, and Joe is that.”


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