David Nail’s evolution comes to Stage AE

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You may have heard David Nail’s voice in Pittsburgh before. Maybe it was one of his shows. Maybe it was at PNC Park when he was rooting for his beloved Cardinals.

Tonight, Mr. Nail returns to our North Shore — not for a ballgame, but for a concert at Stage AE.

“Pittsburgh — it’s a lot like a lot of places we play,” said Mr. Nail, who has established himself as one of the bright lights of contemporary country music. “I consider Pittsburgh to be part of the Northeast and, for whatever reason, we’ve always done really well in the Northeast. We get great crowds, real responsive crowds. Pittsburgh is a place we haven’t played a lot, and we see the crowds are tending to grow more and more.”

The only disappointment he has in tonight’s visit is that the baseball season hasn’t started yet.

“I’m a big baseball fan,” said Mr. Nail. “And it seems like Pittsburgh has been perfectly placed for a day off [on past tours] and I’ll catch a baseball game there. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few games there, some in good weather some in bad, but I love the ballpark and I love the city. Obviously, though, I do root for the Cardinals, being that I’m from Missouri.”

Mr. Nail broke onto the scene with his debut album in 2009 with somber songs rooted in personal experiences — cheating, breakups, disappointments — to which people could relate. A 2011 song, “Let It Rain,” was his first No. 1 single, and “Turning Home” was nominated for a Grammy.

But his first couple albums were kind of dark. His latest, “I’m A Fire,” with its top-rated song “Whatever She’s Got” signaled a more upbeat sound.

“My songwriting has always been a product of where I’m at in my life,” Mr. Nail said. “I think it was a combination things changing in my personal life and me wanting to represent that on the new record.

“But also I just felt like it was time for a bit of a change. Not that I’ve grown tired of singing sad, slow songs. But having been on the road, you get a taste for songs people gravitate toward.

“We were lucky to find a song in ‘Whatever She’s Got’ that kind of set the tone and made the process a lot simpler. This is something we enjoy, and we like where this is going.

“The glorious thing is that it’s such a big song it’s brought so many new fans to us. Which is what you want to happen. And then once they found out there’s two more David Nail records out there, they go out and explore those.

“The early songs are the backbone of what you do. It’s weird. When we had nothing but those songs to play, not everyone gravitated toward them. And now people will call those songs out, and we’re like, ‘What in the world happened?’”

Might there be still more changes in his music to come?

“I think you have to constantly be evolving,” he said. “I’ve always looked up to Tim McGraw, who is like that. Every record, you could always guarantee it would sound a little different from the last record. He would take some chances, lyrically or the overall sound. I admire that. Even though he found a tremendous amount of success, he doesn’t continue to go to that well. I’ve tried to do that and hopefully will continue to do.”

Whatever he sings, though, you can count on it coming from the heart.

“I’ve tried to explain that to my wife over the course of my career,” he said. “One of her famous questions was, ‘Who’s that sound about?’ — which makes for an uncomforable moment. But a lot of times, when I sit down to write a song, if I don’t have anything in my past or my present that I can kind of reference, it’s really kind of difficult for me to stay in the moment and write that song because there isn’t that connection.

“I’m a terrible actor. I can’t fake anything, I can’t portray something I’m not. I’ve never tried to do that because I’ve always known I would fall flat on my face.”

He comes to town tonight with a new sound and a new band. But it’s still great music.

“In the last year, we’ve kind of revamped the whole group,” he said. “I’d say the past 12 to 16 months there’s been a complete transformation for various reasons. But everything happens for a reason.

“We have five different personalities, personally and musically. You put them together and, for whatever reason, something just works. Having been on the road for a long time, I’ve always been fortunate to have great bands. But there’s something special about this group of guys. They’re talented and they each bring something special to the music. I’m really extremely grateful with the direction we’re going and the guys we have.”

You can judge for yourself tonight at 7 p.m. at Stage AE, 400 North Shore Drive. Mr. Nail is appearing with Sam Hunt. Admission is $27.85.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

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