When Jerrod Niemann began the process of recording his new album "Free The Music," he decided to go back to school, in a sense. He wanted to seek an answer to the much asked question "What is country music?" To find the answer, he revisited the music of some of those who had inspired him, and he found a common bond.
"When you first move to town, you want to be like your heroes," he admitted. "But, what I realized after going through two record deals, and hitting rock bottom was, that after hearing songs like 'Write Your Own Songs" by Willie and Waylon, it says 'Hey, Mr. Traditional Guy, if you don't like our music, then go write your own damn songs.' I thought 'Wow, we look at them as icons of traditionalism because they were Willie and Waylon, but they wouldn't have written a song like that unless someone was giving them crap about their progression.
A lot of these people have had to defend their music in one way or another to have their own voice."
Niemann recognized that being different was something to be respected. "To sit around and imitate artists like that is not as inspiring as thinking all those artists had their own voice, and no one is ever going to be like them. I think it's important for me that if I am going to have a voice, it might as well be mine."
His label gave him and producer Dave Brainard free rein to find his voice on the project. "I had spent so much time digging through the history of country music from the 20s, but I hadn't focused in depth on the instrumentation."
Jerrod Sat Down With Billboard This Summer
The album is an ambitious one, fusing together many different musical styles with country music. There's some Blues a la Jimmie Rodgers, a pinch of west coast sounds a la Buck Owens, a dash of swing and dixieland on "Honky Tonk Fever," and the horns on "I'll Have To Kill The Pain" bring to mind some of Elvis's finest work during the early 1970s.
First single "Shinin on Me" continues to climb the Billboard Top Country Songs chart, landing at No. 18 this week.
He feels the album works well because of the chemistry between him and his producer. "It's a unique blessing with Dave because our minds are so locked in together creatively. It's so bizarre."
Acclaimed vocalist Colbie Caillat appears on the jazzy "I'm All About You," on which the singer recorded her part not in a studio, but a hotel room. "I talked to her on the phone a few times. I was just so blown away that she could do her recording in a hotel room. It was so unconventional. To work with someone like her is a real honor."
At the end of the day, Niemann says that history is sometimes relative to the time period you're in - at least on a musical level. "What really blew my mind was considering that the pedal steel guitar - what we use today, wasn't even invented until 1948, so for over twenty years prior in country music, there was horns. The steel was actually derived from the resonator that was in Hawaii. The fiddle started in Scotland in the tenth century, so it's weird to see that we all came from different places musically, so for us to take different elements and eras of country music from the 20s on, but interpreting them in our own way - sort of like mixing 1927 with 2027 is the neatest way to describe it."
And, about that definition of "country?" Well, Niemann says that's relative, too, but "This album is my interpretation of how I feel about country right now," he says.