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Jerrod Niemann, ‘Free the Music’ Is Liberating Tribute to Country Music History

Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Jerrod Niemann is one of the most forward-thinking country musicians on the radio today, yet his musical inspiration comes from looking back … way back. The Kansas native prides himself on being a music scholar who has studied not just the Keith Whitleys and Willie Nelsons who’ve come before him, but also their musical mentors, dating all the way back to the 1920s. On his new album, Free the Music, Jerrod pays sonic tribute to decades of music, adding a horn section and experimenting with a melting pot of country music’s past, present and future. The Boot sat down with Jerrod in the Nashville studio where he recorded Free the Music to talk about this curveball he’s throwing and why he’s not too stressed about whether or not contemporary country radio takes a swing at it.

Were you at all hesitant to take such musical chances on this album?

Maybe this is the trauma of having gone through two record deals, or the blessing of now being on my third one, but I’ve had the time to let so much soak in. My easiest example would be my icons, Willie and Waylon [Jennings], and a song called “Write Your Own Songs.” It’s a brilliant piece. There’s a line, “Hey, Mr. Traditional Country Guy, if you don’t like our songs then write your own damn songs.” Those guys led the way by being themselves. We may get flack for being progressive, but this Outlaw movement changed music. I have always wanted to be like those guys, but you can’t try to be just like them — you need your own voice to stand out. So we looked at 70 or 80 years of not just music but the recording process as well, to try to be different.

Sea Gayle / Arista

So your country influences span decades, but this album also has a little soul, rock, R&B …

People will say this is country, this isn’t country. I’m asking, because I don’t know, what is country? Is it being born and raised three hours from the nearest airport, like I was? Or is it someone born in New York, but then moves to Mississippi to live on a farm — are they not country just because they were born in New York? What’s country? It’s a feeling, a state of mind. There’s also instrumentation, but look at the fiddle and steel [guitar] — they’re definitely the epitome of what is country music. But the pedal steel guitar wasn’t invented until 1948. The year before that, Tex Williams had a song out called “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette” with horns all over it. Twenty years before that, Bob Wills had horns in country music. So I know that’s going to be the thing that sticks out — the horns that I put on this country record, but I can go back 80 years to defend it. Music has always been derived from so many different things … It’s not my job to educate everybody on that, but it’s just an interesting point to make when making a record: I don’t think I need to stay inside the rules of what our current, Nashville state of mind says country music is. There’s no true definition — it’s just how it makes you feel.

Have you always been a country music historian?

One thing that triggered my passion to dig deeper on the instrumentation and finding out where it came from was learning about artists like Jimmie Rodgers in the ’20s, and the Carter Family. When you think about George Strait and Keith Whitley, well the Hag was their hero and Lefty Frizzell was his hero, and Ernest Tubb was his hero and so on. But never had I thought until the opportunity came for me to be a producer that I had to have the respect and the passion to find out where my own heroes’ inspiration came from. I went to college for music and have always loved learning the history, hearing the stories. But coming to Nashville, if I’m going to dedicate my life to something, the least I can do is know where it came from.

Watch Jerrod’s ‘Shinin’ on Me’ Video

“Shinin’ on Me” was a big hit at radio, and people are now begging you to release the gorgeous ballad, “Only God Can Love You More” as a single. But do you even think about country radio when you’re making a song or do you just cut what you want and hope they like it?

I went to college for music — actually, commercial music. One of the things my songwriting instructor said to me was, “I can’t teach you how to write a song. It’s in your subconscious.” Fundamentals are embedded into you. Especially in this town, it’s all about the song. You can put a pig in a prom dress, but it’s still a pig in a prom dress. I knew that if we were going to take all these chances musically, although they’ve been taken a million times, I knew that the songs had to be 100 percent there or all this doesn’t matter. I wish I knew a hit song from a song that’s not a hit. There are songs that come on the radio that I think, “What the heck?” But it sells millions. Then there are songs that I think are amazing but they don’t sell anything. So I don’t think too much about the hit song value. But while we’re writing it, when I’m sitting around in a room with these extremely talented musicians and songwriters, I’ve learned to try to appreciate the commercial value. So I do try to write songs that can compete, but dress them so that maybe not all the classmates can understand.

I made this record out of pure love and excitement for being in this creative town. It is called Music City. I absolutely don’t want to be considered anything other than a country artist. This album is just my way of doing things a little differently. Hopefully some of the chances we’re taking today will be used in these “what is country music” arguments tomorrow. Stepping outside the box can be scary, but it was out of pure love for the format.

“Fraction of a Man” seems to be a very personal song, and it’s one you wrote solo. What does it say about you?

I still have a certain amount of a “guy’s guy” mentality. It’s easy to say, “Let’s sing a song about why I’m so country, or why I’m so tough.” But to me, what really makes a man a man is when he isn’t scared to say how he feels. My grandpa was a man of few words, but he wasn’t scared to say “I love you.” This song is saying, yes, I’m from a small town and have that small town mindset, but it’s just as manly to wear your heart on your sleeve than to beat the hell out of somebody. It’s OK to not be the manliest guy in the room.

You come across as very unassuming and someone who really doesn’t consider himself a celebrity. Why is that?

Probably because it’s taken so long to make it. It would probably have been traumatizing to make it at an early age. And I’ve been kicked between the legs — figuratively, of course [laughs] — a million times. I’m set in my ways, the old dog-new tricks thing. I love the music, that’s it. I love talking to people, of course, but we’re all really just vehicles for the music.

If you look in Wikipedia, the only thing listed for you under “Personal Life” is a tour bus fire. Do you appreciate that no one really digs into your personal life just yet?

It’s so weird, because I’m not scared to drink a beer or cuss. I’m going to be the same way on stage, running my mouth, as I am off stage. I got in trouble one time for flipping off a [photographer], but that’s just what I do. And I’m the one who tweeted a picture of it! [laughs] Personal life is something that means something to a lot of people … When I love a musician, I love to learn about him. But I don’t desire to use ex-girlfriends or something like that to get more attention. I like to earn attention the right way, through music.

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