Jerrod Niemann's last album, 2014's High Noon, was heavy on production, a polished sonic blast that veered more toward country dance than the classic sounds of Lefty Frizzell, whose name Niemann has tattooed on his left arm, or even Garth Brooks, for whom he co-wrote the 2005 hit "Good Ride Cowboy."
But with his new single "Blue Bandana," Niemann is getting back to basics. A country-rock jam that sneaks up on you with an Eagles-Allmans acoustic intro, the song is a travelogue of the nation's music festivals, from Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Coachella in California to Hangout in Alabama and Wakarusa in Arkansas. Niemann name-checks them all, as he goes in search of a girl wearing the titular handkerchief.
"Being a music fan, I know that girl in the song," says Niemann, reclining on a couch in the ASCAP building on Nashville's Music Row after playing a handful of rough mixes of new songs for Rolling Stone Country. "['Blue Bandana'] is a story-song and a tip of the hat to those people who drive all over the place and spend their money to let us jam with them."
However, "Blue Bandana," written by Ben Goldsmith, C.J. Solar and Andrew Scott Wills, is more than Niemann describes. Like today's country music, the festivals in the lyrics reflect all the disparate genres influencing country. But not necessarily this song. Niemann explains how he and producer Jimmie Lee Sloas deliberately tried to focus on just the acoustic-rock component.
"I love sitting around listening to acoustic music," Niemann says, drawing a comparison between "Blue Bandana" and his 2010 Number One "Lover, Lover." "We made an effort with that, if it came down to two instruments, one electric, one acoustic, let's go with acoustic. It allows the music to breathe. There is so much compression when you record, mix and master, and then when it goes to radio, they compress it again. So we drew back everything to give it a chance [to sound] like you're in the room."
There's no release date or even title for Niemann's fourth major-label album, but the songs he showcased point to a similar vibe as "Blue Bandana." "Feelin'" has a distinct airiness about it, with a bit of a tropical vibe, while "Zero to Crazy" is a fast, in-the-red rocker. Neither sound overly slick or ready for the club — this is jeans-and-T-shirt music.
"That's spot-on," Niemann smiles. "We actually have a song called 'Red, White and Blue Jeans Town.'" One of the songs he had a hand in writing, he says it has a "nice country element to it."
Which should work in his favor when the "Drink to That All Night" singer returns to the festival circuit. Just not the ones in "Blue Bandana." Niemann admits he hasn't been to many of them. But not for lack of trying.
"They all happen at the exact same time as the country festivals," he says. Still, he's proud to have both attended and performed at the Country Stampede in his native Kansas.
"We've played it five times now," he says, turning wistful for the days he made the pilgrimage as a fan. "I went camping there a couple times. I was a teenager so I was built for that — and had the hormones to back it up."