The day Joe Nichols hit rock bottom, Jan. 6, 2005, the singer of hits like "Brokenheartsville" and "The Impossible" was in Steamboat Springs, Colo., for a music industry meet-and-greet. Eager to shake every hand and play every gig, the hardworking Arkansas native had gone from an unknown to a three-time Grammy nominee and the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist in less than a year. "There was a lot to celebrate in Joe's career that first year," says his longtime manager, John Lytle. "What we didn't realize was that Joe was keeping it going long after the party was over." In fact, for nearly three years Nichols had been abusing alcohol and amphetamines almost every day. "I hid it pretty well," he says. "Too much speed and I'd be all jacked up. Too much booze and I'd be dull. So I took enough of each to keep me going."
By the time he got to Steamboat Springs, however, Nichols had finally run aground. Bummed out by bad-weather flight delays, "I had drank a fifth and a half of Scotch and taken every pill I had in my pockets," he says. "I was screaming at everyone—incoherent babbling. I don't remember much."
"He had lost control, and it was clear he was in no shape to perform," says Lytle, who calmed his client down and arranged for him to see a therapist back home in Nashville two days later. Says Nichols: "I was scared and anxious and totally skeptical of the whole thing."
Today, Nichols, 29, readily credits his once-daily therapy sessions—which he now attends, he says, on an "as-needed basis"—for helping him kick his destructive habits. "I was still high the first time I went in," he says. "The therapist asked me not to drink or take drugs the rest of that day and the next. I felt I could do it one day at a time and not think about the next day till the next day." For the next eight months, he says, "I did not drink a single drop." It was during this time that he recorded what he calls his "blue skies and sunshine" album, III. (As for whether his hit single "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" seems flip in light of his experience, he says, "It's just a fun song.") Nichols, who figures he had a beer a day starting in his early teens, now drinks occasionally, but it's not "to get hammered" as he once did. He has never considered himself an alcoholic or attended AA. ("AA's position," says a spokesperson, "is that it is up to the individual to determine if he or she is alcoholic.")
"Of course you remain alert to changes in behavior," says Lytle. "We have regular gut-check kinds of meetings. Since Joe stopped taking drugs, no longer drinks to excess and has been in therapy, I can see that on a day-to-day basis he deals with stress much better."
Through therapy Nichols gradually dealt with the roots of his substance abuse: depression, brought on by the guilt he felt over not properly grieving for his father, Mike, a long-distance trucker who died at 46 of pulmonary fibrosis in 2002, just as his son's career was taking off. Father and son had been estranged over a violent incident involving Joe's mother but patched things up before Mike fell ill. Right after the funeral, Nichols found himself booked for more than 200 tour dates. "The only way I could work and not think about him," he says, was through speed and booze. Now he's grateful for the times they did share, especially the Fourth of July right before Mike's death, during which "we just spent the day together talking."
And Nichols is working on building more family ties. He visits his mother and sister in Arkansas as often as he can, and he's consumed with being a dad to Ashelyn, his 8-year-old daughter by a former girlfriend—making sure she's eating her veggies, teaching her the fundamentals of baseball at minor-league Nashville Sounds games. When he's not on tour, Ashelyn stays with him Mondays through Thursdays at his house outside Nashville. "I still work hard," says the unattached Nichols, who will return to the recording studio after a yearlong gig opening for Toby Keith. "But I'm not using it as an excuse to run away from something anymore. What I do moves me toward something: towards time with my daughter, happiness, people I love and want to be with. In some way," he muses, "it pays for the mistakes my father made, and helps me put them to rest."
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