Spend any amount of time with Jerrod Niemann and you will find a performer who can quote country lyrics from album cuts from the 1970s or 1980s. But, just because he cherishes the history of the format doesn't mean that he feels compelled to be a clone of the artists he grew up admiring.
"When people think about country music, and they use the term 'Traditional Country,' they're talking about something that has happened in the past," he tells Billboard. "But, when those songs were out currently, they were the freshest thing on the radio. Nobody was saying 'Let's go record traditional country.' They just wanted to record music that meant something to them. Willie and Waylon were getting flack for being progressive at the time because they were mixing it with rock and the outlaw thing. Those guys were just doing what they wanted to do creatively. It's such a bizarre argument because all those things were fresh back then."
Niemann's third Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville release, "High Noon," hits stores on Tuesday, and one listen to the album reveals arrangements as hip and as cutting edge as anything else on country radio these days. While there are influences from other genres on the album, it's really nothing new. His debut album – 2010's "Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury" – showcased a mix of genres from the traditional all the way to R&B.
"I've always tried to respectfully add a few elements here and there. We've all listened to country music our whole lives, and more and more things start occurring. When you look at the fact that Johnny Cash, Bob Wills, and Elvis are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Country Music Hall of Fame, that makes you realize that it's all been done before," he said of the musical exploration.
The first single from "High Noon" is the energetic "Drink To That All Night," which risest to No. 6 this week on the Hot Country Songs chart. Is Niemann a chart watcher? He says he doesn't over analyze the numbers, but they are important to him. "Once a week, they send us all the information in an email that goes out to everybody. I look at it because I know there are a lot of people working their tails off to get the song up the charts. It's great to be part of a team and see it happen. It's always good to have the fans react positively to what we're doing in the studio."
One highlight of the album is "Buzz Back Girl," which was co-written by Lee Brice – a good friend of Niemann's. "When the label pitched me a song. I heard the first note, and knew it was Lee's voice. So, I called him and told him 'This song is really cool. Are you going to record it? He said he had just recorded a song that was very similar on his album, and there wasn't room for both, so that would be great if you recorded it. I said 'Consider it done."
The two go back quite a while, with Niemann saying of Brice, "He's probably saved my neck more than I realize. When we had the bus fire back in 2012, he was the one that realized it was on fire, so I'll always be thankful for him," but Niemann added that Brice has been there in other ways. "Sometimes when a single only gets to No. 29 on the charts, and I wonder if that's a nail in the coffin, he and Randy Houser would start including me in on everything they were doing. They're just good friends. Instead of kicking someone when they're down, they said 'Hey, man. We're brothers. We're going to make it through this together."
Niemann will be hitting the road in a major way in 2014 to promote "High Noon." He feels that it's important to strike when the iron is hot. "I just feel like the first couple albums, we were trying to show people what we were doing, and this album meshes it all together. It feels like people are starting to gravitate toward it more than before, so if that's the case, I want to pour as much gasoline on the fire as I can. I'm so excited to get out there and do that. I'm sure it will be exhausting at some points, but I've worked my whole life on ranches and farms, so I know what it's like to be a real working man. Anytime somebody will let me play them some music, you'll see me there. We'll keep going till they shut us down. I saw an empty calendar for about ten years," he said with a laugh.