A turning point in the Music Row career of the breakout Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville artist Jerrod Niemann came a couple years ago, when longtime pal Jamey Johnson gave Jerrod some tough-love advice.
“At that time I’d gained like 100 pounds and looked the Pillsbury Doughboy. I couldn’t get arrested in Nashville,” Jerrod recalled in a conversation in mid-January. “Jamey had just won like three Grammys for his album `The Lonely Song,’ and that SAME night he pulled me aside and said, `I can tell you’re not yourself. I don’t know why you don’t cut a record. Obviously, you’ve had a few cuts a couple years ago, but you’re not retiring.’ ”
Indeed, at the time Niemann’s then girlfriend had not only split him but moved all the way to India, Jerrod hadn’t written a song in about a year, and his record deal with Category 5 had gone under.
Niemann, who had earlier co-written Garth Brooks’ 2005 smash “Good Ride Cowboy,” took Jamey’s advice to heart. He soon began writing again and got back in the studio. The 20-track album that resulted, “Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury,” reached No. 1 and was named one of 2010’s Top Ten Albums by The New York Times’s Jon Caramanica.
“Lover, Lover,” the first single, likewise reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and his current single “”What Do You Want” has already made the Top 20.
A few weeks after hearing Johnson’s advice, Jerrod called longtime friend and producer Dave Brainard. Niemann told Brainard, “let’s take an approach to make an album that’s more fun and more humorous. We wanted to make an album that, when it was done, if someone was having a rough day they could put the album on and smile.”
Looking back on it now, Jerrod knows that this album project did even more than that.
“That album saved my career. Maybe my life,” he says.
That life began in the small Kansas town of Liberal, which is where one summer at the pool he discovered the song that became “Lover, Lover.” The tune was first released by an integrated Chicago folk/R&B band called Sonia Dada, who called it “You Don’t Treat Me No Good.”
Jerrod loved the Sonia Dada song, which never charted but was played a great deal that summer in Kansas. His sister eventually put it into her iPod, and Niemann never forgot it. His version is very faithful to Sonia Dada’s original, loose, original Jam Band feel, including the layered harmonies.
“At first we were gonna have my buds Jamey, Lee Brice, and Randy Houser do the harmonies,” Niemann says. “But they were all on major labels, so there would be a lot of red tape. So I thought, shoot, we could wait for that.”
But then Brainard said, “why don’t you just sing the harmonies?”
That was no easy task. There are nine harmony parts.
“So I drank a bunch of Jack and hung out at the studio the next morning,” Niemann says, smiling. “And I told Dave, `all right, record that thing.’ ”
The result went straight to No. 1. Soon, the album did as well.
“The great thing about the album is we didn’t use any studio musicians,” Jerrod says. “It was truly our band and Dave Brainard. Dave is such an incredible dude, really a genius, and once everybody else figures that out, he won’t make time for me anymore.”
Another huge alliance for Niemann is his publisher, Sea Gayle Music, the Row powerhouse founded in 1999 by Frank Rogers, Chris DuBois and Brad Paisley. Paisley, who’s also on Arista Nashville and is the new CMA Entertainer of the Year, is headlining a tour that plays Nashville in late February and also features Niemann and Darius Rucker.
“When we finished the album, I dropped off copies to Sea Gayle and Frank Rogers and told him, `Since you’ll be listening to every little detail of this and you’ve had like 28 No. 1s, get drunk before you listen to it,’ ” Jerrod said.
That evening, Rogers texted Niemann to tell him he’d finished dinner and cracked open a 6-pack. Frank went on and on about how much he loved it. The next morning, Jerrod got a phone call he thought was a prank.
“Hey Jerrod, this is Brad Paisley. I just called to tell you . . .” the voice said, then quickly hung up.
No way, Jerrod thought. Must be one of his friends joking around. But seconds later, Brad called back and apologized for his cell phone issues, then said he too had heard and loved the record. Paisley then took the album to then Sony Nashville head Joe Galante, who likewise immediately got and appreciated the quirky album.
“Hats off to Joe Galante and Arista,” Jerrod said.
These days, country radio and millions of fans are tipping their hats to Jerrod Niemann.
By Phil Sweetland
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