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.”
The note on the Bluebird Café’s Facebook page says it all: customers who visit the Nashville songwriters club instrumental in the development of Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Kathy Mattea – are expected to keep quiet and listen to the words from some of Music City’s most influential composers.
Listening has an added benefit – it gives the listener a chance to learn.
That’s how singer-songwriter Dustin Lynch used the Bluebird. And he used it intensely. He rented an apartment behind the venue’s back parking lot and literally walked to the Bluebird several times a week to listen and learn about the mysterious art of creating songs from some of Nashville’s most important writers. Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), Tony Arata (“The Dance”), Paul Overstreet (“Forever And Ever, Amen”) – all are mainstays of the Bluebird legend, and it was at their proverbial feet that he picked up key insights about the writing process.
“I was soaking it in, trying to be a sponge,” Lynch says. “I was mainly trying to hear the story behind the song, how it came about, what it’s really about. There’s something about understanding the songwriter’s realm. You get a little more grip on the way it was written and why it was written and how they got to the finished product.”
That education paid off in a big way for Lynch. He signed with Broken Bow Records – the home of Jason Aldean and sister label to Stoney Creek Records (home to Thompson Square) .His debut single, “Cowboy and Angels,” is quickly rising up the Country charts. Lynch is working with producer Brett Beavers (known for his work with Dierks Bentley) and engineer Luke Wooten (Brad Paisley, Sunny Sweeney) on his debut album (due August 21, 2012) with a backlog of his own songs. He’s written that material with a bundle of Music City’s top writers – Dallas Davidson (“Just A Kiss”), Tim Nichols (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Casey Beathard (“Don’t Blink”), Phil O’Donnell (“Back When I Knew It All”) and Steve Bogard (“Prayin’ For Daylight”), to name a few.
But it all goes back to the Bluebird for Lynch, a native of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Influenced in his youth by such stalwart country singers as Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Clint Black, Lynch knew the importance of the Bluebird, and he chose his college – David Lipscomb University – in part because it was less than two miles from the club, which proved immensely important in his development.
Lynch auditioned on a Saturday morning for a chance to play its open-mic night the following day. He passed the audition and impressed host Barbara Cloyd so much that she chased him into the parking lot and offered to help him get some footing in the community.
As he began to establish himself at the Bluebird, Lynch got a call from Pete Hartung – manager for singer-songwriter Justin Moore – who had found Dustin’s MySpace page and wanted to get involved. Within weeks, Lynch had a publishing deal, and he made the most of it, writing a staggering 200+ songs in less than two years.
“I’m a workaholic,” he says. “I was getting paid to write songs, so that’s what I did. That’s just the guy I am, if I’m not doing something I get bored, so I was trying to write the best record possible and decided to just get after it as hard as I can.”
Even as a Bluebird visitor, Lynch had made an impression. After he signed his publishing deal, one of the company’s executives persuaded Phil O’Donnell and Casey Beathard to book a co-writing session with the new writer, even though they’d never even heard his name. As soon as he walked through the door, they exploded: “Holy crap, Dustin! We know you!”
But it’s not just physical recognition that Lynch has achieved with his studious approach to songwriting. He combined his fascination with words and melodies with concert skills he developed in high-school bands and playing the southeastern club circuit. That combination has made him one of country’s artists to watch, a performer who’s written his own mix of party songs and ballads with a unique perspective. It’s his own viewpoint, honed from watching the world, and watching the experts.
It’s all there, waiting for anyone else willing to…
TOM GOSSIN / RACHEL REINERT / MIKE GOSSIN
From the band’s earliest days, the members of Gloriana have always known that good things take time. The country trio first came together in 2008 when brothers Tom and Mike Gossin moved into Rachel Reinert’s Nashville apartment. Together they spent months in cramped quarters, surviving on Ramen Noodles while trying to shape their sound. “Gloriana are three people who have played music for their entire lives,” says Mike. “But we never really caught a break until coming together. Tom and I played in bars for 10 years, but it wasn’t until the three of us got together that we knew we had something special.”
That something special has held Tom, Mike, and Rachel together through all manner of personal and professional struggles over the past several years: from relationship upheavals, to the departure of band-mate Cheyenne Kimball, to long stretches away from loved ones on the road, to wondering whether their music would ever catch fire. Fortunately it did when Gloriana’s 2009 self-titled debut album soared to No. 2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart propelled by the gold-certified single “Wild At Heart”. That same year, they spent two years on the road with Taylor Swift and won both an American Music Award for Breakthrough Artist and a coveted ACM Award for Top New Vocal Group in 2010.
It’s been a minute since that heady time, but the wait has been worth it. The band’s first single “(Kissed You) Good Night”, from A Thousand Miles Left Behind, achieved several career milestones for Gloriana. It was the fastest-rising single of their career, Certified GOLD by the R.I.A.A., and is the #5 most played song on Country Radio for 2012. There is no question that their new music marks the beginning of a new chapter in the group’s creative evolution - a willingness and confidence to write songs taken from personal experience and introspection.
Gloriana released their new single “Can’t Shake You” and it has quickly become a standout track from A Thousand Miles Left Behind with fans routinely commenting on how relatable the song is for the struggles to move on after a break up. “Can’t Shake You,” written by Tom Gossin, Stephanie Bentley, and James Slater, is currently climbing the charts, with the accompanying video in rotation at both CMT and GAC.
”A Thousand Miles Left Behind literally and figuratively describes our lives over the past three years,” Tom explains. “It's also a testament to how we're constantly learning and growing with every experience on the road, because this album is really about just that — growth.”
The album, their second produced by Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer Matt Serletic, is Gloriana’s most personally revealing and emotionally resonant work to date, relaying their hopes, dreams, disappointments, and triumphs against a richly textured country backdrop. The band members co-wrote every song, often collaborating with Serletic (who has worked with Willie Nelson, The Band Perry, and Matchbox Twenty) as well as several of Nashville’s finest composers, including Josh Kear (Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum), Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride), Tommy Lee James (Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood), Stephanie Bentley (Faith Hill, Martina McBride), and Wendell Mobley (Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney).
The result is an engaging mix of up-tempo, good-time numbers (“Wanna Take You Home,” “Sunset Lovin’,” “Go On…Miss Me,” “Doin’ It Our Way”) and graceful, heartfelt songs (current Top 20 single “(Kissed You) Good Night,” “Can’t Shake You,” “Turn My World Around,” “Carolina Rose,” “Soldier Song”) that showcase Gloriana’s signature harmonies, as well as their ear for irresistible melodies and undeniable knack for story-telling. Tom’s songs tend to deal with the allure of fame (“Gold Rush”) and how his wandering lifestyle has impacted his relationship (“Carolina Rose” and “Can’t Shake You”). “A lot of the songs on the album are written from the point of view of the person I would like to be,” he says. “’Like on ‘(Kissed You) Good Night,’ my alter ego comes in and does what I’m afraid to do in real life. It’s ultimately a song about not ending up with regrets because the worst thing is to look back on something and think, ‘I wish I had done things differently.’”
Mike found himself digging deepest emotionally on “Turn My World Around,” where he sketches out one of the darkest times in his life. “Before Gloriana, I was living in North Carolina and I was broke,” he says. “I didn't have a car. I was sleeping on my brother’s couch. I was in a rut thinking, ‘Is anything ever going to happen?’ The song is about meeting somebody who pulled me out of that bad place and saved me.” Rachel’s most personal moment “Where My Heart Belongs”, closes out the album with her happy memories of growing up in Georgia. “I wanted to reflect on that carefree childhood vibe and how circumstances change as we grow older,” she says. “My parents have since split up and everyone has moved on with their lives. I wanted to express in a subtle way that even though things change, memories remain.”
The members of Gloriana come by their songwriting bonafides through a lifetime steeped in music. Born in the upstate New York town of Utica, Tom and Mike were raised by parents who “worshipped songwriters,” Tom says. “My dad was always saying, ‘Hold on, we’ve got to put the right song on for this’ before anything could happen.” The boys, who both took up piano at age four, had an old-school upbringing, complete with Sunday dinner at their grandmother’s house after church with their entire extended family clustered around a folding table. “My dad was a truck driver and my mom cut hair in our kitchen for extra cash,” Tom says. “Being from a poor family and living in the middle of nowhere — our lives were a country song. My parents were born and raised in Utica. People don’t leave the area. I was the rebel kid who was like, ‘I’m going to get the hell out of here, you just watch.’”
After graduating early from high school at age 16, Tom enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington then dropped out two years later to focus on music. By this time, Mike had followed him there and the brothers began playing gigs five nights a week, anywhere they could, to make money. “My mom was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to go to community college?’” Mike recalls, “and I said, ‘No, Mom, this is going to work, trust me.’” Before the brothers knew it, ten years had passed. “It breaks you down,” Mike says. “It makes you look at yourself and wonder, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” The Gossins decided to move to Nashville, which is where they met Florida native Rachel Reinert who lived in Marietta, GA, and Santa Ana, CA, before signing a publishing deal at 16 and moving to Music City at 18 to launch a career as a singer-songwriter. Tom and Mike moved into her spare bedroom. “They slept in the same bed with a mound of pillows separating them,” Rachel says with a laugh. The group spent the next six months getting their sound together before sending a demo to Serletic’s Emblem Music Group, which signed the band and set their burgeoning career in motion.
Their final show before hitting the road for two years with Swift in 2009 was at the sports bar Wild Wing Café in Columbia, SC, where they were literally paid in chicken wings. Next thing they knew, Gloriana were performing for thousands of people at an arena in Evansville, Indiana. For the past three years, they have toured constantly, opening for such artists as Alan Jackson, Jason Aldean, Zac Brown Band, and Brooks & Dunn. In 2010, the band launched its first nationwide headlining trek, “The Long Hot Summer Tour.”
“The first night we opened for Alan Jackson, we asked him if he had any advice for a group starting out, and he said, ‘Man, it’s all about the music, make sure you stay true to the music,’” Mike says.
Gloriana released their critically acclaimed second studio album A Thousand Miles Left Behind at the end of July and it debuted at #2 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart and at #10 on Billboard’s Top 200. The rave reviews poured in, all impressed with the growth Gloriana displayed on the 11 tracks of the album. That growth did not go unnoticed by all with Gloriana getting nominated for three 2012 American Country Awards for Breakthrough Artist of the Year; Single of the Year: Breakthrough Artist “(Kissed You) Good Night;” and Music Video: Group or Collaboration “(Kissed You) Good Night.” The trio is currently out on the road performing headlining shows across the country.
“I think through the growth of this band, and all the ups and downs of this rollercoaster ride that we’ve been on, it feels like we’ve finally found our place. A Thousand Miles Left Behindis it; it just feels right,” Mike continues. “This is us, Gloriana, singing about where we are in our lives and the experiences we’ve had. That’s what country music is all about.”
People believe in Kristen Kelly. Candid and down to earth, with a room-filling smile and a voice that echoes the heart of what she sings, Kristen laughs as she describes her music as “a little more grease than polish.” And that grease is an exciting mix, distilled from her country, blues, and classic rock influences into a passionate, playful, often sexy, and always heartfelt reflection of real life as she knows it.
“I have a hard time singing or writing about something I can’t relate to,” she says, and that philosophy is front and center on her Arista Nashville debut, co-produced by nine-time CMA Award-winning producer Tony Brown and two-time GRAMMY®-winning songwriter Paul Overstreet.
“Paul got the ball rolling,” Kristen says. A chance meeting at a 2010 benefit concert impressed Overstreet enough to invite her to write with him, sparking a chain of events that ultimately led to her record deal. But Kristen was far from an “overnight” discovery.
Born in Waco, Texas, Kristen Kelly grew up in the country, living on 10 acres in small-town Lorena, Texas. “You blink, you miss it,” she smiles. She credits her outdoorsy, adventurous spirit in adult life to those days of “simple country living.”
She sang in talent shows and high school choir, and by middle school had taken an interest in poetry, beginning the foundation for the songwriting that would emerge years later. “I grew up in love with music,” Kristen recalls. Her late grandfather, Sterling Kelly, was a country musician – “I still have 45s of him and his band” – while her dad helped instill her affinity for classic rock, as well as her determination. “He’s a simple, hard-working man who never quits – and I think that’s where I get some of my ‘workaholic’ from is him.” Along the way, she adds, “I fell in love with the blues.”
While bartending in 2001, an impromptu performance earned Kristen an on-the-spot invitation to sing with a regional classic-rock cover band. That night launched a three-year part-time gig with the band as she moved closer to a life in music, co-writing her first song (“Down in Flames” with Brandon Jenkins and Stoney LaRue) in 2004, the same year she began a two-year music degree at Waco’s McLennan Community College.
In her final semester, a friend asked her to sing harmony on songs he was recording. They began writing and recording with Kristen on lead vocals, as well, resulting in their self-released album, The Highway Is My Home, as Modern Day Drifters. Initially a duo, they added a few players to flesh-out their live sound, and the act earned airplay and acclaim around Texas. But with the departure of her original partner in late 2008, Kristen took the reins and recorded her debut under the banner Kristen Kelly & The Modern Day Drifters, producing all but one song on 2010’s independent Placekeeper.
Her musical style embraces influences ranging from Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Bob Seger to singer/songwriter Patty Griffin to the blues and soul of Ray Charles, Susan Tedeschi, and Bonnie Raitt, while her country roots were shaped in part by the sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I grew up listening to The Judds and Reba and George Strait and Willie Nelson,” she says, adding that her biggest influence is Merle Haggard.
“I think I’m such a big fan of Merle Haggard’s music and his songwriting because it’s simple. I’ve always believed that country music was three chords and the truth, and that’s more or less what he did – and what all the great blues musicians did.”
Kristen mines her own truth with a lighthearted look at love gone awry on the groove-filled “Ex-Old Man,” her Arista Nashville debut single and the lead track on her Kristen Kelly EP, which features four songs, all co-written by Kristen. From the up-tempo, gettin’-over-you fun of “Drink Myself Out of Love with You” to the playfully sexy “Miss Me” and the soulful powerhouse, “He Loves to Make Me Cry,” Kristen says, “Every song is a chapter in the story of my life.” Indeed, her philosophy on songwriting is all about being candid – and being real.
“I’m a happy person,” Kristen offers, “but what I write has a lot of angst and realness to it, whether it’s something that I’ve personally experienced or somebody close to me has experienced. To be able to give voice to pain that I’ve felt, to be able to say ‘it hurts’ when it hurts, is part of my music. And if something I’ve gone through helps somebody get through something in their life, then I think that’s the ultimate reward for being a survivor.”