Mark Humphrey, File, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some things have changed for Jerrod Niemann since he finally scored a couple of hit songs after years of disappointment. And some things haven't.
In the change category, the rising country singer-songwriter has been on the road constantly the last two years and has finally found the stardom he's been seeking. He even has the impulse buy to prove it.
"Well, I bought a car when I was drunk," Niemann acknowledged sheepishly when asked recently about celebrity moments. "I wanted a car. I didn't know what I was going to get and I didn't even see it. I was on eBay in my hotel room and I woke up and had bought one and had bid on another one. I was, 'Oh, please don't win!' Luckily, I didn't win the other one."
While that Dodge Charger has helped keep his lifestyle in fast forward, Niemann remains firmly rooted when it comes to his music. "Free the Music," out this week, is another re-imagining of what the modern country music album can be. He used humor and spoken-word interludes to subvert the form on his debut, "Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury."
This time around he takes a more sober-minded, but no less interesting look at the history of country music. "Free the Music" has a few potential cuts that could be hits on country radio, but it's also got just as many songs that push the boundaries of what we've come to expect from the genre in the 21st century.
Using a unique tape-to-digital format, the 33-year-old native of Texas peppered the album with Dixieland clarinet, a horn section, swampy B3 Hammond organ, unconventional percussion and pre-steel guitar instrumentation, all mixed in with some of country's modern mainstays. Niemann said so often country performers pay tribute to the great songwriters of yesteryear. He came at it from a different direction.
"I want to pay homage to certain instrumentation," Niemann said. "The pedal steel guitar wasn't invented until '48, so there was horns in country music for 20 years before the pedal steel guitar was even invented. When we think of horns first and foremost, you don't think of traditional country music."
That clarinet grabs your attention on the jazzy "Honky Tonk Fever," which swings unlike any song you've heard with honky-tonk in the title. The muted horns add to the Caribbean vibe on "I'll Have to Kill the Pain," what might otherwise be a conventional country take on drinking away woman troubles. And that rolling B3 adds a funky J.J. Cale vibe to "Guessing Games." Tuba and French horn are buried in the mix as well.
"Jerrod has definitely put himself in that category: Not your average Nashville artist," said close friend Lee Brice, who co-wrote two songs on the album. "... Now, he's a country boy at heart and he's a huge country music fan. But also the other types of music in him come out. When he sits down to write, he just wants to write a song he loves and he wants that song to be him. So sometimes he loves the horns and sometimes he loves some percussion and things that aren't necessarily on a country record."
Niemann wants those sounds and ideas to resonate with listeners — and the other musicians who follow the muse.
"Hopefully someday down the road — even if it's just one person — maybe it will inspire someone else to do their own thing," Niemann said.
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