By Kay West
December 16, 2009 12:00 PM

Some fairy tales take a turn or two on the way to happily ever after. Country star Joe Nichols’s took a big one just a month after his idyllic 2007 wedding to his longtime sweetheart, Heather. That’s when he walked into his Nashville home and found a gathering of the people closest to him. “Business associates, my best friend, lots of people,” Nichols, 33, recalls. “They told me my problem was apparent. They said they loved me but it was time for me to turn it around. It’s going the wrong way.”

That intervention led Nichols to check into rehab for alcoholism in October 2007, putting his career, his marriage and his future on the line. Two years later, the singer–best known for the boozy hit “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”–is sober, happily back with Heather and out with a hopeful new album, Old Things New. He’s also busy rehearsing for his debut in the spring of 2010 in the new Broadway musical version of the 1992 George Strait film Pure Country.

Quitting drinking “was extremely hard, and it’s still hard, every day,” says Nichols, relaxing on the patio of his in-laws’ riverbank cedar cabin outside Jefferson, Texas. “I had to change everything I’d come to believe about myself.” Hardest of all, he says, was answering the question, “If I’m not this train wreck, then who am I?”

The Arkansas native–his dad was a long-distance trucker while his mom raised him, his older brother Mike and their sister Kelli–was already a partier when he signed a record deal at age 19. His first major release, 2002’s Man with a Memory, earned him three Grammy nominations and an ACM top new male vocalist award. In 2007 he wed Heather Singleton, a pharmaceutical sales rep he had met when both were 18 and dated on and off for 10 years. “It was so romantic,” says Heather, 34. “Then came the shock.”

Heather had no idea Nichols had a problem. “He put so much energy into hiding it,” she says. When she found out, “it was complete devastation. Besides being sad, I had a lot of anger, like, ‘How could you have done this to me?’ ” Nichols, too, felt angry–at his friends for calling him out. “I didn’t see it as a sickness,” he says. “I figured I had gotten a little too crazy, a little out of control. I thought I just needed a tune-up, not a complete overhaul.”

Still, Nichols stayed in a rehab clinic for 60 days, working on his issues and worrying about his future. “I thought my fans would think the worst of me,” he says. “I felt like everyone must think I’m a terrible person, a tremendous phony.” The truth, he came to realize, “is that there’s always been a barrier around me. People knew about me, they just didn’t know me.” Even Heather wondered, ” ‘Who is this man?’ I felt like before I could make a decision about our marriage, I had to find the real story.”

A turning point was when Heather visited Nichols during his rehab. “My father had told me, ‘Heather, he needs you now more than ever,’ ” she says. When he saw her walk into the clinic, “I was just so relieved,” says Nichols. “I thought, ‘If she’s here, she’s not leaving me.’ ” And Nichols finally spoke from his heart. “He told me, ‘In you, I see who I am,’ ” remembers Heather. “It really bonded us. We faced this ugly thing 30 days after our wedding. I felt like if we could get through that, that’s a good sign.”

Once out of rehab, Nichols moved away from the party scene in Nashville to Longview, Texas, Heather’s hometown–though they both spend far more time at her parents’ country hideaway, where Nichols loves to fish in the high, fast river that runs along the property. And, every morning, he has what Heather calls their coffee moment: “He makes coffee for me, and he looks me in the eye and says, ‘I promise you I’ll stay sober today.’ ”

Not long ago the couple were supermarket shopping in Longview when Nichols pulled his wife toward him in the produce aisle and kissed her. “The vegetable stocker told us how great it is to see two people in love,” recalls Heather. “I feel like what we have is real.” Sitting on the patio, listening to the river rush by, Nichols, too, talks like a man who’s gotten his life–and the fairy tale–back on track. “My home is with Heather,” he says. “When I’m with her, I can lay my head down at night and sleep like a child.”

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