102.5 The Bull Presents
Heartstrings for Hope
Benefitting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Featuring Jerrod Niemann, Joe Nicols, and Dan + Shay
While writing and recording his new album, Jerrod Niemann immersed himself in the history of country music. A student of music theory and production—he majored in Performance Art Technology at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas—Jerrod pondered a question that is heard more and more frequently these days: Just what exactly constitutes country?
His answer to that query can be found in the musically and technically groundbreaking Free The Music. “This album is my interpretation of how I feel about country right now,” Jerrod says.
The follow-up to his Sea Gayle Records/Arista Nashville debut Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury, which debuted at No. 1 and yielded the No. 1 hit “Lover, Lover” and the Top 5 single “What Do You Want,” Jerrod’s sophomore album emphasizes the early instruments that have shaped the genre: acoustic guitars and bass, fiddles, and even horns.
“The pedal steel guitar has come to define country music, but there were years and years of country being made before that instrument was even invented. Horns have been in country going back to the 1920s. And fiddles and other string instruments date back even further. I took all those things and put them on Free The Music,” Jerrod explains. “I made this record in an effort to try and mix 1927 with 2027, but I didn’t want to disregard 100 years of what people have already done musically. Instead, I wanted to take that and do it in a way that is also representative of the future.”
The result is an adventurous release that redefines the listening experience. A “headphones album” if ever there was one, Free The Music is a sonic journey through a multitude of styles, including country, rock, honky-tonk, Dixieland jazz and reggae.
While exploring these sounds, the Kansas native says he sought inspiration in the outside-the-lines approach of two seminal outlaws. “Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were very progressive in their day, and they were getting harassed by people who said, ‘Hey, that’s not country.’ But the mistake many artists make when they first come to Nashville is that they want to be those guys so badly that they get stuck in time. It’s our duty to have our own voice and come up with our own way of saying something,” Jerrod stresses. “Icons like Alabama and Ronnie Milsap did that by using pop melodies. But when you hear their songs today, they’ve become country classics. Those artists stepped out, and I hope fans will understand that that was my goal too. I want the album to push you out of any musical comfort zone.”
Jerrod took each of those big steps with great care, painstakingly fine-tuning every song on Free The Music with his visionary co-producer Dave Brainard. Together, the pair cut a new technological path in Dave’s studio, using a one-of-a-kind analog-to-digital recording process to give the record a rich, organic feel. “Knowing that analog was going to be our foundation—and that we’d have the ability to easily record and re-record digitally—gave us the confidence to take more chances. For instance, we used an acoustic bass on the entire record and put horns on every song. By doing so, we got a lot of organic sounds,” Jerrod shares. “I want people to realize the time and effort that we put into this album, from the beginning of the first song to the very last note.”
Such exquisite attention to detail is evident throughout the 12 songs that make up Free The Music, all of them written or co-written by Jerrod. From the funky opening title track to sun-drenched first single “Shinin’ on Me,” the songs represent an artist committed to stretching musical boundaries while simultaneously honoring country’s past.
The empowering “Get on Up” employs a unique ascending-and-descending guitar riff and a surprisingly well-fitting Mellotron. “Real Women Drink Beer,” cleverly combining elements of reggae with the Bakersfield Sound, would sit nicely on a Dwight Yoakam album. “Honky Tonk Fever” has prominent jazz horns and remarkably different tempos. And “I’m All About You,” featuring Grammy-winning vocalist Colbie Caillat, is a piano-driven, laid-back love song.
But it is the knockout ballad “Only God Could Love You More” that, for the first time, truly showcases Jerrod’s voice as the nuanced instrument it is.
“Some people sound the same on every song, but I like to be a chameleon, like an actor in a role. For ‘Only God Could Love You More,’ we didn’t put any harmonies on it and used my original tracking vocal. ‘Lover, Lover’ had a bunch of harmony parts, so I thought it’d be interesting to have zero here, especially with the French horns and the other orchestral things we have going on,” Jerrod says. “Some songs just work better with one vocal. If you listen to Garth Brooks’ ‘The Dance,’ that doesn’t have any harmonies on it either. Not that I’m comparing myself to Garth by any means.”
Still, the allusion to the 1990s superstar isn’t out of bounds. Jerrod co-wrote one of Garth’s biggest hits, “Good Ride Cowboy,” and penned two others for the Country Music Hall of Famer, along with songs for Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, John Anderson and Jamey Johnson.
“The most important thing to me is songwriting. But no one can ever hear a song without a vehicle, whether it’s me or somebody else singing it,” admits Jerrod, who, as a writer, has more than 10 million albums sold to his credit. “If someone told me I couldn’t write a song ever again, or had to choose between playing and writing, I don’t know what I’d choose.”
Fortunately, no one is forcing him to. Jerrod is free to pursue both of his passions on stage and in the writing room, using his gift with a lyric and melody to free the music, expand people’s minds, and deliver an album that, while occasionally unconventional, is undeniably country.
“For me, it’s all about the song. You can put all the bells and whistles on an album that you want, but if the songs aren’t there, it’s not going to work,” Jerrod says, discussing the versatility of country music. “You can take all of these songs, go into a studio and record them with Nashville’s amazing studio musicians, and Free The Music would sound just like a modern-country record. And that’s fine. But I like to experiment.”
Jerrod cracks a wry grin at this admission. Clearly, he’s comfortable with his role as a musical scientist--an artist who absorbs all styles and sounds, and forms them into his own creation.
“When your ears are always on, everything seeps into your brain,” he says with a laugh. “And my ears are always on.”
As far as where I’m at with my new music and my new label, Red Bow, this is
more than a new chapter. It’s a new book. My new single “Sunny And 75” is getting
as great a reception as anything I’ve ever done, and the album it comes from is
something I might have hoped I could do at other points in my career, but have been
held back from. And I’ll be the first to say that the holding back has mostly been me.
What strikes me this time is how much freedom I’ve felt in this process, the depth I
have in my relationships – personal and professional, it really is a family thing. And,
to be honest, just how much fun I’m having. Freedom, family and fun ... there’s your
The hard part of this journey, if that’s not too cliché a word for it, was leaving
my last label, because the wheels in Nashville just turn really slow sometimes. And
time turned out to be our enemy and our friend. The more distance I was able to
get from the last few years of stops and starts, the better. But our enemy was
losing a consistent presence with the fans and radio. That hurt, but it set up some
anticipation for something new; it was also very healing and kind of humbled me a
I went into the studio to start making music with my own money. One of
those sides, a song called “Yeah,” will probably be a single on this record. The other
was a stone-cold country song called “Billy Graham’s Bible.” So, we walked into labels
with something to play for them. Quite a few were interested, but the majors tend to
have a lot of artists in line and wanted me to look at a late 2014 release. I wanted to
be in business with somebody who had the same sense of urgency about me as I do,
and Broken Bow did. Being one of the flagship artists on their latest imprint, which is
a joint venture with Sony Red, helped this all feel brand new.
The one thing about my approach to this record that I was almost militant
about was that I wanted to find hit songs that might be a bit unexpected. Having
a hit, writing or making good albums has never been a problem for me, it’s been
that momentum you get from a consistent series of hits. That’s why I wanted to be
rigorous about finding songs that cut through, even if they didn’t seem to fit the
idea people have of what I should sound like. I wanted to be able to say we’ve got six
singles on this album. Or ten. And that meant being open to songs and sounds a lot of
folks wouldn’t have thought would work.
The interesting thing is that we’ve ended up with a very balanced record.
There are lots of songs that feel like they’d sound great getting heavy airplay, and
there are also some that I think people will say, “That’s a cool moment on this album.”
Sometimes those coincide.
A lot of that has to do with my relationship with the label. People warned me
that Benny Brown, the founder, is very involved in the A&R process. At first I didn’t
know how that would go because I’ve been very hands-on with the music throughout
my career. After working with Benny, I can say he’s very involved, but all in good
When he finds something he’ll say, “I like this for you, what do you think?
Would you try this for me, because we don’t know how it’s going to sound until you try
it.” That’s a push in a healthy direction with the understanding that if it doesn’t turn
out in the studio, we don’t have to show it to anyone.
That was comforting and allowed me to try things with nothing really to
lose. It was freeing and very different from where I’ve been in the past with the A&R
process. In some more jagged situations, I probably did become a bit of jerk about
Joe Nichols: Joe On Joe
cutting what I wanted to cut. So Benny’s approach let me gracefully bow out of that
kind of attitude. I was able to approach this album with a new heart for the music and
a new set of ears. It’s worked out tremendously.
Several are songs I probably never would have found or thought were right
for me if I had found them. Having Benny bring them to me and having that ability to
try, to see what something sounds like, has been great. My producers, Mickey Jack
Cones and Derek George, have also helped me understand that whatever I do vocally,
it’s going to bring it back to traditional no matter how far out there we get.
Just as the drive for hit singles led to a balance of material on the album,
my voice and the ability to be edgy with song selection created a balance, too. In an
organic way, it made for a unique sound. You can have a rock-pop feel with the track,
because the traditional vocals bring it back. There’s always going to be a traditional
element in my music that I won’t change, and really just can’t change. But I can reach
beyond my comfort zone, too. Certainly in 2013, it would be foolish not to try.
I realize there are purists who could be let down by that mindset, and there
have been times I have absolutely felt that I was letting people down by trying new
things. And, of course, that created massive fear in me that probably led to decisions
that hurt my progress. So I’m glad that I now feel comfortable enough in my own skin
to know what being true to myself really is. I am true to traditional country music
and always will be. I have bled and sweat and cried country music my entire life. And
broadening my approach won’t change that one bit. That’s the freedom – to be happy
and successful and make music I’m proud of.
There are layers to my relationships and the people around me. There’s a
depth there that I’ve never felt before, especially in a working environment. I care
passionately and deeply about the music, as well as the people I’m working with. I care
about the overall well-being and success of everybody. That is a wonderful feeling, and
way more important than having hit records and looking good to the outside world.
This is family.
I have been a Nashville guy for a long time and would move back there in a
heartbeat, but I also love Texas because it’s the place I want to raise my children. It’s
just a great way of life here. When I’m home, there are no crowds, no industry events
to go to, none of that. It’s just family, friends and a normal pace of life.
The new music is going over awesome on the road, especially “Sunny And 75.”
The other new songs we play get an incredible reaction, too. As far as the crowds go,
I’ve been almost two years without a single at radio and people are still showing up in
awesome numbers. I’m impressed and incredibly grateful for country fans, because
they are amazingly loyal.
I’m also thankful radio is welcoming me back with open arms. I love that I have
true friends there who care about me beyond the music and career stuff, because
I care about them in the same way. So I’m especially proud to give them music they
can play in good conscience. It’s not just my friends hooking me up with airplay, it’s
something deserving, and I hope to continue giving them that.
The biggest thing I feel is just that it’s a new day. I’m wiping the slate clean
and starting something brand new. I love my old catalog of music – “Tequila Makes
Her Clothes Fall Off,” “Brokenheartsville,” “The Impossible,” “Gimme That Girl” and the
rest. But I’m starting the first chapter of that new book now. I’m pretty sure it’s got a
happy ending, but I also hope there are a few surprises for people along the way.
Warner Music Nashville’s new duo Dan + Shay (Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney) are currently in the studio recording their debut album in Nashville, TN, and set to release their first single to Country radio, “19 You + Me”, in October. The album, which is expected to be released in 2014, is being co-produced by Dan, Shay and Scott Hendricks. Dan and Shay met in December of 2012 and quickly hit it off with their musical similarities. The two began writing together and with their very first cut gained attention of country superstars Rascal Flatts who immediately put the track on hold for their album. From those first writing sessions, their relationship grew to include performing together, where the two discovered an infectious original sound all their own, mixing country rock/pop seamlessly throughout intimate power-ballads and stadium-worthy hits. Born and raised in Natural Dam, AK, Shay has been singing since he was a young child. At 14-years-old he fell in love with songwriting and at 16 began learning the guitar. He officially moved to Nashville last year but grew up frequently visiting and recording in Music City. Musical influences include Rascal Flatts, Dave Matthews Band, Usher and Kenny Chesney. Dan was born and raised in suburban Wexford, Pennsylvania and has been writing and playing music since the age of 12. A Nashville resident since 2010, Dan has been on the local songwriting scene writing with people like Blair Daly, Cary Barlowe and Jason Reeves among others. Musical influences range from Ryan Adams and Tom Petty to Kenny Chesney and Alison Krauss.