In country music's neotraditionalist wing, the hottest member of the baby-baritone boom is Joe Nichols. His 2002 major-label debut, ''Man With a Memory,'' sold over 730,000 copies, helping establish this new beachhead for old-school sounds. ''By looking at me, you'd think the opposite, that this country thing was just something to latch onto,'' concedes Nichols, 27, a Stetson shunner whose longish hair used to be even longer. ''But I grew up hardcore country'' -- as in the stuff his shuffle-loving dad was partial to: Merle, Marty Robbins, Ray Price. ''It was tough to be cool in high school, because the cool things were rock and rap. I couldn't get into it, man. That stuff hurt my head.''
His narrowness is our gain. Nichols recently returned with the even better ''Revelation.'' Several cuts touch on mortality, including a version of Iris DeMent's wrenching ''No Time to Cry,'' which echoes his feelings following his father's death two years ago. ''Since then, it's odd that the littlest thing can make you just cry your eyes out. And music does that now. It used to mean the world to me, and now it means much more than that. I don't want to be morbid in every song, but it reflects my life at this moment. Anyway, hopefully the next one will be about partying and sunshine and flowers.''
But would Nichols rather be singing songs that make folks cry, or two-step? ''Anything but rock & roll,'' he laughs.