Country star Jerrod Niemann steps outside the box for ‘Free the Music’
By Steve Wildsmith | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Country artist Jerrod Niemann has been a musician for a long time, but it wasn’t until the making of his most recent album, “Free the Music,” that he became something of a musicologist.
“I majored in country music in college, and I love it going all the way back to the 1920s, but until I became a producer, I didn’t really pay attention to the instrumentation,” Niemann told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “There’s this thing called CLASP (closed loop analog signal processor) that works with the old analog machines — the reel-to-reel, old half-inch tape they used to record with years ago. Say you’re playing the guitar: The signal flow goes through the machine, into today’s technology.
“You never really have to update anything. You’re basically robbing the analog sound from the machine, and you don’t have to change the studio to get it. It’s the best of both worlds, because it allowed us to dig into other textures and try some new things rather than take new technology and just recording old sounds.”
Niemann, who performs Friday night at the 2012 Foothills Fall Festival, may be one of the most innovative up-and-coming country stars in Nashville these days. For “Free the Music,” which hit stores last Tuesday, he set his sights on a sound that begins with a country music foundation and builds into a conglomeration of numerous genres that represent a broad spectrum of the American musical experience.
Old and new
“It’s been the most exciting thing,” he said. “I never would have been able to dream this up as a kid. This mix of old school and new school, it gave us the opportunity to know what you want the final results to be, and so I wrote in that direction for two years. Dixieland, Chicago-style jazz, all of these different musical origins — that was my direction.
“But you have to remember the whole art vs. commerce thing, and you can’t lose sight of that, either, or it would probably ruin things. It’s a difficult talk to wrote in your own style and cater to a certain instrumentation but also write stuff that people can hopefully relate to without it getting totally out of whack. But we knew in the very beginning what we wanted at the very end.”
Niemann grew up in Liberal, Kansas, a rural community where the highlight of his young life was a visit to the local skating rink. After high school, he studied music for two years at a Texas college, moving first to Fort Worth, then Nashville in 2000. The year before, he’d released his independent record “The Long Hard Road,” and once in Music City, he bounced from label to label — signing first with Mercury, then the Category 5 label. Constant touring, grinding away in clubs across the country, took its toll, and Niemann credits a circle of close friends — including neo-traditionalist Jamey Johnson — with pushing him when things seemed down.
Johnson, he added, first brought him to East Tennessee, and his experience opening the show at The Tennessee Theatre makes him eager to return on Friday night.
“When you get to East Tennessee, you know a couple of things: It’s a huge, fan-oriented place, and people there know how to cheer,” he said. “People in East Tennessee love music and sports. They’re great fans.”
Eventually, Niemann signed with Arista Nashville and released his major-label debut, “Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury,” in 2010. It introduced fans to a musician unafraid to take chances; a concept record that included a number of skits and segues that moved the album forward. It charted three Top 20 hits — “Lover, Lover,” which hit No. 1; “What Do You Want,” which rose to No. 4; and “One More Drinkin’ Song,” which climbed to No. 13. The first single from “Free the Music,” the sunny, horn-infused country-rocker “Shinin’ on Me,” currently sits at No. 17.
“We wanted to mix it up, to make sure half the album is traditional country,” Niemann said of the new record. “We wanted to touch on Dixieland and show off these sounds we dug up from the past, and I wanted to challenge myself musically. For everything I could do outside the box musically, I tried to counteract it with something organically and traditionally country. And, knock on wood, so far everybody’s been open-minded and very supportive.”