The last song Joe Paul Nichols recorded before ALS took his voice was a country gospel standard called “Faith:”
You must have faith
In everything you do
Faith will help you find a way
Faith will see you through
Faith can move mountains
And change the tide at sea
You can follow this guiding light
Wherever you may be
Like the darkness comes at the end of the day
There must be an end to the night
And from the depths of your darkest moment
Faith will show you the light*
It was a fitting last song for Nichols, a man now facing his greatest challenge with an abundance of faith.
“Without faith, I could not deal with life with ALS,” Nichols says through his communication device. “I am thankful for my God, my family and my friends. I consider myself to be a blessed man.”
A fortunate life
Prior to his ALS diagnosis, Nichols had what most people would consider to be a very fortunate life. Born and raised in Jacksboro, Texas, Nichols learned to play guitar from his father. In 1957, when he was just 16, Nichols began performing every other week at the “Cowtown Hoedown” in Fort Worth.
Nichols went on to perform at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas and in 1970 he formed his own band, The Five Pennies. Over the next three decades, he and his band traveled and performed with some of the biggest entertainers in country music, including George Jones, Charley Pride, Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
Nichols recorded more than 300 songs and made 25 albums and received some of the top awards in the country and country gospel music industry, including several song, album, entertainer of the year awards and lifetime achievement awards. Two of his songs, “Jesus is the Same in California” and “Eleven Eighteen Nadine Lane” reached the top of the national country gospel and western swing charts.
Throughout his career, Nichols remained a hard-working family man and a devoted member of his church. He married his high-school sweetheart, Carolyn, and they had two children and seven grandchildren. He also worked as an inspector for the Texas Department of Transportation for 34 years and later ran a bus-tour company. He served as music director of his church, Cundiff Baptist, for 48 years.
ALS ends career early
Nichols’ diagnosis of ALS in the fall of 2007, when he had just turned 66, was stunning news for this clean-living man who had dedicated his life to God and family.
“I was not expecting to end my singing career at this time in my life. However, once again my Lord has reminded me he is in control,” Nichols wrote in a message to friends and fans shortly after his diagnosis. He wrote that while he could choose to be angry, he still considered himself a lucky man.
The disease progressed slowly but inexorably, and by 2009, although still able to walk unassisted, Nichols could no longer sing nor play his guitar. But thanks to Nichol’s devoted friends in the business — and to technology — he has continued his storied career.
Virtual duets with Nashville stars
In 2010, Nichols released an album of previously-recorded material, a tribute to Ray Price called “The Price is Right.” Nichols’song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” also hit number one on the country gospel charts last July.
At the same time, Nichols’ best friend and drummer, Terry Beene, was busy producing an album of Nichols singing duets with other musicians. Beene was able to create the new work using the same recording techniques that in 1991 allowed Natalie Cole to sing an “Unforgettable” virtual duet with her deceased father, Nat King Cole.
Titled “Friends in High Places,” the album features Nichols crooning country standards like “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” “Nobody’s Darling but Mine” and his favorite “Waltz of the Angels,” together with such Nashville stars as Moe Bandy, Barbara Fairchild, Jimmy C. Newman, Darrell McCall and Johnny Bush, among others.
Beene spent several years making all the new recordings and then mixing them with earlier recordings of Nichols singing the same songs. The CD is due to be released in May.
“This is the greatest project he’s ever done and he didn’t have to do anything on it!” jokes Beene, adding that all the musicians who worked on the album volunteered their time as a tribute to Nichols.
“He’s one of the most respected men in the music business,” Beene says. Beene credits Nichols with leading him to God and saving him from a life of drugs and alcohol. “He’s my idol.”
Beene has more Joe Paul Nichols projects in the works, including a country gospel duet CD and a “best of” compilation. He says he has enough material for another three or four albums. Meanwhile, Nichols (who, remarkably, still walks 30 minutes a day with the aid of a walker) is writing his memoirs using an eye-gaze computer.
“I told [Joe Paul’s wife] Carolyn I am going to dedicate my life to promoting Joe Paul Nichols and his music,” Beene says. “I love to see Joe Paul sell CDs. I love to get his music out there, and I love for people to know that even though he can’t sing, he’s still doing stuff.”
With friends like these, Joe Paul Nichols is indeed a blessed man.
Visit Joe Paul Nichols’ website to get more information, download songs and order CDs.
*Hear a recording of Joe Paul Nichols singing “Faith,” written by Dick Glasser, Joe Johnson and Jerry Organ, © Golden West Melodies, BMI.