A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Jerrod Niemann hopes to ‘Free the Music’ on his new album
Column: The country singer-songwriter, who has Oklahoma ties, is playing Friday at the Diamond Ballroom, and he will bring along a horn section for the show.
“Think of all the restaurants we went into that had music or your car or working out or whatever it might be. So I just was saying ‘Hey, tell everybody, it doesn’t have to be our music, just let music be a part of your life.’”
In fact, “Free the Music” is more than just the title of his recently released sophomore album. It is the country singer-songwriter’s mission statement.
“In Nashville, labels don’t usually have a whole lot of faith in new artists, especially to use their road band on their albums,” Niemann said in a phone interview this week from Music City. “But since our first album was independently done and Sony picked it up after the fact, they gave us the kind of go-ahead to just continue recording. Since we had that rare opportunity, I thought it’d be fun to challenge myself and, of course, all the guys I play with to really dig deep and try to see what we could come up with.”
For the follow-up to his chart-topping 2010 Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville debut “Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury”, Niemann, 33, dug bedrock deep into country music history and came up with a surprisingly adventurous and engagingly eclectic 12-song collection that fuses country, rock, honky tonk, Dixieland jazz and reggae. The funky title and opening track encourages people to “free the music/you gotta free your mind/it’s party time,” and Niemann said he hopes listeners do just that — particularly when they hear horns on every track and in his live show Friday (tonight) at the Diamond Ballroom.
“You know I love the history of country music more than life itself, to the point that I made this album so I could argue with anybody to the point of what is country and what’s not,” he said with a laugh.
“What I realized is that in 1938, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys brought in horns to country music when he invented Western swing. So I thought, ‘Wow, it’s crazy to think that horns were in country music 10 years before the pedal-steel guitar that we all think of as the epitome of country music was even invented.’”
With “Free the Music,” the Kansas native — who considers himself “half-Okie” since his mom hails from Hooker — and his band favored classic country instruments like acoustic bass, acoustic guitars (occasionally plugged into an electric amp) and fiddles. But his sophomore effort thrives on cross-genre experimentation, from the jazzy horns on “Honky Tonk Fever” to the Beatlesque Mellotron on “Get On Up.”
“For everything we did that was crazy, we tried to offset it with something organic to kind of just try to yin and yang it, you know,” he said.
“If you listen to ‘Real Women Drink Beer’ again with your headphones in on the verses, take out one headphone and you’ll hear a reggae band in one ear. Put it in the other ear and take out the other one, you’ll hear a rockabilly band. Put ‘em in together and you’ll never know the difference. And it’s just my point of showing just how similar we really are, as much as we hate to all admit it,” he added with a laugh.“It took me two years to write some of the songs because I was writing in a direction of art vs. commerce. Obviously, I came out as a commercial country music artist, so I mean, I can’t just all the sudden be underground scene. So I look at it like, ‘well, that’s just the path that luckily I was given, so I just have to somehow make it to where … hopefully your ears don’t bleed.’ So once you write in that direction, then find the instrumentation, then record it, then sing on it, then mix it, then master it, it’s a long process, especially if you choose to be involved in all of it, which of course, I do.”
For Niemann, who majored in Performance Art Technology at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, such experimentation is nothing new. After all, his breakthrough No. 1 single “Lover, Lover” had a distinctive doo-wop vibe, while the Top 5 follow-up “What Do You Want” punctuated its breakup pain with Latin-flavored percussion.
“First and foremost, I would never want to be considered anything other than a country artist … but there’s nothing wrong with challenging people to listen a little differently,” he said.
While he looks up to game-changing country music legends like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Garth Brooks — he co-wrote the Oklahoman’s smash “Good Ride Cowboy” — Niemann doesn’t want to mimic their singular styles.
“Willie and Waylon, I mean who in the world wouldn’t consider them country? But when they first come out, just even in their music you can prove that people weren’t digging on them. There’s a song called ‘Write Your Own Song’ that they put out that … they were obviously getting flak from people,” he said.
“Here’s the deal: You gotta be somebody, so you might as well be yourself,” he added. “It’s OK to look up to ‘em and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m gonna do this differently and we’ll see what happens.’”
Despite the chart and critical success of his major-label debut, Niemann didn’t fret about the sophomore slump over the two years he spent making its risk-taking successor.
“You know, the sophomore slump in my mind doesn’t even exist. I mean, if we sold one album and my mom bought it, then that would be fine, just because I made the music that I love. It’s just very, very rare in this town to get to go and make the music that you truly love with the people that you truly love to make it with it,” he said.
“I remember when I was lucky enough to do ‘Good Ride Cowboy’ … I had a guy say, ‘Man, how’re you gonna top that: a No. 1 hit with Garth Brooks?’ And I was like, ‘Man, I really don’t have to top it.’ It’s about adding to what you’re trying to accomplish, and that’s just part of your journey and things you’re lucky enough to be a part of. It’s easy to want to compare albums and things like that, but to me, I feel like it’s just a different part of my life every time I make a record.”
With: Tyler Farr and Sean Patrick McGraw.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Diamond Ballroom, 8001 S Eastern.
Information: 677-9169 or www.diamondballroom.net.