Country music fans probably know Jerrod Niemann for his No. 1 hit, "Lover, Lover," his quirky personality and his creamy baritone. And that ever-present hat.
And that's enough. But it's only half of the story.
Before you ever heard Niemann on the radio, you heard his songs. Niemann has written country songs for -- and with -- the best and biggest in the biz, including icon Garth Brooks, and today's "It" guy, Blake Shelton. Niemann penned "Good Ride, Cowboy," the tribute song lionizing Brooks' idol, Chris LeDoux, and the tender love song "You'll Always Be Beautiful To Me," from Shelton's "Hillbilly Bone" EP.
But according to family lore, one of Niemann's first songs was written to torment his sister, a ditty called "Amy's Butt Looks Like A Hat."
He won't be singing that song when he plays a free concert at CityPlace on Tuesday, but you probably will hear the song that put him on the map vocally, "Lover, Lover." It uses a hook he stole from pop radio and morphed into a country tune. The song got stuck in country fans' heads in the spring of 2010, the same way the original, "You Don't Treat Me No Good" by the soul group Sonia Dada, got stuck in Niemann's head in the early '90s. It became his first and, so far, only Billboard No. 1 song.
But Niemann doesn't believe that chart success is the best way to assess one's career. He called from his tour bus, which was humming along the interstate toward Flint, Mich., for a show. "Unfortunately, in Nashville, people do measure success by the charts, but at the end of the day there's a lot of hocus-pocus behind them. It doesn't all have to do with requests and dedications. There's a lot of promotions, and politics. But for me, if people are paying their hard-earned money to download a song they heard or to buy a ticket to hear us play, that's the actual proof. That they care enough to put their hand in their pocket."
Niemann's interest in music began early, and it was really all he ever wanted to do. Although he was exposed to, and appreciates, a lot of different music, his heart has always been in country.
"For me it was just every single book, every video, anything I could get my hands on as a kid that had to do with country music, I wanted to see it. I wanted to know it so bad, all I had to do was get a glimpse of it and I would remember it."
Niemann left his home in Kansas and college in West Texas and headed east for Nashville in 2000. He had already recorded and self- released an album but he knew if he was serious about music, he had to go to Music City.
"I know it's fun to dress up and think you look cool and dance around and sing songs on stage, but the truth is if you're going to spend your life dedicated to something and you're going to tell people you're dedicated to something, the least you can do is know where it came from."
In the introduction of his second studio album, "Free The Music," Niemann offers "a 12-pack of audio beer," and it is that, but it's also a lesson in the evolution of country music. Niemann says he started out trying to answer that age-old question: What is country?
Using horns and Dixieland Band music, Niemann takes you on a musical journey that weaves its way through the history of country music. He's satisfied that he did that, even if the album's first two singles didn't screech to the top of the charts.
Niemann says he's already recorded more than half of the songs for his next album. "I've been writing a lot with Lee (Brice) and Randy Houser, and there are some musicians, random guys like Sheryl Crow's drummer and the steel guitar player for Emmylou Harris, I'm going to throw them into the studio together and see if magic can happen. I always love getting back in the studio. It's like a kid playing a video game.
"This next album will be a lot more normal, not focused so much on the instrumentation or on being a concept," Niemann said, "but more on the actual lyrics. It will be vocally driven with a lot of harmonies. I'm a big fan of The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. I wish America realized just how influential The Beach Boys were on so many artists."
Some artists seem to remake a successful album over and over. They see what worked and they don't want to risk doing something different. Niemann's not one of them.
"I want to look back 20 years from now at a snapshot of each album, each its own unique thing. Some are going to be weird as can be and some are probably going to be stuff you don't have to analyze, just good stuff to tap your feet to. I want to cover all of it."
And if he never sees the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs list again?
"Plan A was to be a singer. Plan B was to be a songwriter. If Plan B didn't work, Plan C was to try Plan A again," Niemann laughs, but he's not really joking. Whether he's remembered as a singer who wrote songs, or a songwriter who sings, or not at all, he doesn't waste energy pondering that. "I'm going to let destiny choose."
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