Hint: It involves an ex spotting a photo of him in PEOPLE

By Eileen Finan
February 16, 2016 08:15 PM
Credit: Jim Wright

It was the summer of 2008 and it was good to be Chuck Wicks. After bursting onto the country charts with his single “Stealing Cinderella” and a top 10 debut album, the singer had scored a hot slot on Brad Paisley‘s tour – and a hot date with Paisley tourmate Julianne Hough, then trying her hand at a country music career.

For months, the couple made headlines, even partnering up for a run at the mirror ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars, and Wicks’ high profile, good looks and charm made him a staple on hot guy lists (including PEOPLE‘s!).

By the beginning of 2011, however, the relationship with Hough had long since fizzled, his follow-up singles were flailing and he was dropped from his record deal.

FLASHBACK: Chuck Wicks Turns the Big 3-0

“I was on such a high and everything was great and then boom – everything was over,” the singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE.

“My personal life was in the dumps. I lost the record deal. I didn’t have a publishing deal as a writer anymore. I was just trying to make ends meet by touring as much as I could, but even that was starting to run dry because I didn’t have any current hits on the radio. I was in the dumps.”

Music opportunities became so scarce Wicks nearly gave up. “I was to the point where I was starting to have to look for jobs outside music because I wasn’t making enough money,” he says. “I saved as much as I could but it was starting to dry up.”

Down on himself and his career, Wicks gained more than 30 lbs. “I was dating someone at the time and she picked up this old copy of PEOPLE with a picture of me in “country’s hottest guys.” She holds up the photo and says, ‘How come I don’t get this Chuck?'” he recalls. “She was saying I wasn’t as good as I used to be.”

The comment hit him hard – and made him face some tough truths.

“It lit a fire under my ass,” says Wicks, who also notes that the girl was quickly history. “She wasn’t the right girl for me obviously! But I picked myself up, went straight to the gym, got back into writing and became focused to get my life back together. It was a real turning point. Instead of saying, ‘I had my run,’ I said, ‘No man, there’s no way I’m done.'”

He began building a new career – and a happier life. In 2012, a song he penned “You Don’t Do Lonely Well,” was cut by Jason Aldean for his mega-selling Night Train album, and the next year, Wicks signed an independent record deal and landed his gig as co-host of the nationally syndicated country radio show America’s Morning Show.

And perhaps best of all, the singer, now 36, found love again. “She couldn’t be further away from the music business, which is a good thing!” he says. “I’m very much in love and I’m definitely ready to settle down and have a family. I’m feeling good about everything.”

Now, on the verge of releasing his long-awaited sophomore album, Turning Point, out Friday, Wicks just received his first ACM nomination – for his radio show – and he’s training for his first Iron Man competition in June.

After his past highs and lows personally and professionally, he takes nothing for granted these days. Adds Wicks, “I got a second shot at this and I have no intention of blowing it!”