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Joe Nichols was feeling lost. His years on the road and in the country music business had made him a weary man, both physically and mentally. And for a moment, he did not know which way to turn.
But now, Nichols says he's back on the right path.
"I feel at peace right now, and I can apply that to so many parts of my life," the Grammy-nominated country music hitmaker tells PEOPLE. "Whether it's the way I feel about God or how I feel about my family, the real things in my life are all that matter to me now."
"You have to stay in touch with that, or otherwise, you will become lost like I did," he adds.
Setting him back on the right course was due, in part, to the ability to spend some much needed and much overdue time at home over the pandemic shutdown. But it wasn't easy.
"The first few months were a bit uncomfortable," recalls Nichols, who has built a two-decade-long career on the strength of a slew of No. 1 hits, including "Brokenheartsville," "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Come Off" and "Gimme that Girl." "You know, my wife has her routine, and the kids have their routine and I have mine on the road. But this changed everything. And all of a sudden, I was in the home every day, 24 hours a day. And I had to plug myself into their routine."
But at the same time, Nichols found his home to be a haven for his soul.
"I got to fall in love with my wife all over again," Nichols says of wife Heather, whom he married back in 2007. The couple have two daughters together — Georgia, 7, and Dylan, 9. "I also felt like I got to know my kids for the first time. Like they had just been born. Like I had just been born. And so that's a great big blessing as I now find myself back on the road."
And it is this premise that serves as the very personal and introspective foundation of his new single "Home Run." And while the sweet song on the surface seems to reverberate from the pain of the pandemic, it's actually a song Nichols first took notice of all the way back in 2018.
"This song meant a lot to me even then, because I've always felt that we all get lost every once in a while," Nichols says of the song written by Ashley Gorley, Dallas Davidson and Ross Copperman. "I just think this is a really important time for this kind of message where, when everything has been so crazy and everyone has been so wound up, it's good to get a good bit of home."
The song also marks Nichols' first new music since his 2018 EP, Never Gets Old: Traditional Country Series, and the first music since reuniting with veteran label head Benny Brown with whom Nichols enjoyed two multi-week No. 1 singles, "Yeah" and "Sunny and 75," from the critically acclaimed album, Crickets. So now, with the love of home and family now firmly behind him, Nichols says he's also found himself branching out professionally like never before, including his appearance in the upcoming release of the new movie Murder at Emigrant Gulch.
"They wrote this character for me to be part of this story," Nichols tells PEOPLE about the western thriller starring Gabriel Byrne, Thomas Jane and Isaiah Mustafa. "I heard about the movie back in February or March, and I spent a month filming it during the last week of April."
And while Nichols is the first to admit that he doesn't carry a huge role in the movie, he was perfectly fine with that.
"I wanted to get a part that I could slide into and a part that would feel natural to me and that's what they did," Nichols says of the movie filmed in Montana. "And I loved it. It made me realize the real work of the actors, directors, assistants and producers that it takes, each and every day."
The experience even has Nichols a tad antsy about getting to do it again. But even he admits he has some work to do before that happens.
"I would have to really dive into a lot of learning and get a lot of education on this," he says. "It's flat out mesmerizing to watch these actors go into these characters. It was a really cool experience."
And at 44, new experiences become that much more gratifying and satisfying for Nichols.
"It's definitely a God thing," he concludes. "I'm always planning for the next thing, but opportunity never crosses my mind. Whether it's a new label or a new song or a movie role you never thought you would be offered, it's all such a neat experience that I can always tell my kids and grandkids one day."