The two Number One singles Jerrod Niemann has notched in his career could not be more sonically different. "Lover, Lover," which hit the top spot in 2010, is an acoustic-driven almost-coffeehouse jam, while his latest Number One, "Drink to That All Night," is custom-built for the dance club. And Niemann, who celebrated the success of "Drink to That All Night" yesterday at a Number One party at the Tippler lounge in Nashville, is proud of that diversity.
"I'm thankful that the two widest array of songs are successful, because I love being a part of all that's different," Niemann told Rolling Stone Country prior to meeting reporters and receiving the multitude of milestone plaques that are doled out at such uniquely Music Row celebrations.
It's those musical differences, however, that have also set country fans at odds. While some revel in the progressive sound of "Drink to That All Night," others lament its non-traditional nature, which will only intensify as a remix of the song with rapper Pitbull begins to gain traction. Niemann and Pitbull filmed a video for the new version of the song last week in Miami.
"Some of the hip-hop guys have these hardcore attitudes or you hear stories about them, but he was just beyond a nice guy. There is something really special about his presence," said Niemann, who is unfazed by any blowback generated by his thumping "Drink to That All Night" or his even more polarizing new single, "Donkey," which rhymes and raps "donkey" with "honky-tonky" in the chorus and name-checks George Jones in the verses.
Niemann, a knowledgeable country music historian who co-wrote the Chris LeDoux tribute "Good Ride Cowboy" for Garth Brooks — he has "Lefty," in honor of Lefty Frizzell, tattooed on his arm — looks to his forebears for reassurance.
"When Willie Nelson wrote 'Write Your Own Songs,' and then he and Waylon did it, I never thought that they were getting flack from country fans," said Niemann, taking a sip of a Moscow mule, dubbed a Moscow "donkey" on the cocktail menu for the afternoon party. "But when you hear, 'Hey, Mr. Purified Country, is your head so far up your ass that you don't realize we're in a world where we all belong?' you hear that they were getting enough complaints that they wanted to sing about it. So that gives me confidence to realize that you have to be somebody, to be yourself."
Niemann cites "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Uneasy Rider," by the Charlie Daniels Band, and Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece at a Time" as now timeless songs that flipped the Nashville script by relying on the staccato spoken word over singing.
"If rap had never existed, nobody would say anything [about today's rap-influenced country] because these songs already exist in our past and are classics. People are just looking at it in the wrong way," he said. "The people who are getting real upset maybe just don't know as much about country music as they think."
Still, he appreciates the passion of vocal trad-country fans who take to the Internet to blast Niemann and his party-ready peers.
"The fact that they care enough about it to get online and be mean, that means they care about it that much. And it's hard for me to really get mad about it, because I know how much music means to me."
He's equally candid when it comes to his thoughts on the much-maligned "bro-country" trend.
"I'll be honest. When I first moved to town, I would have hated it. Well, hate's a strong word; I would have strongly disliked it. Because I had the [mindset] then that even if it ruins my career, I'm going to fight for the tradition of country music no matter what," Niemann said, recalling those lean early days when the Kansas native arrived in Music City.
"So I went and fought and went through a couple record deals, and what I realized was radio, and rightfully so, they want to keep feeding a younger audience so they have people that listen to it. I think that part of our industry wants to move forward and be progressive and part wants to keep it [traditional]. People think if we go and mix other types of stuff it's ruining it or it's going to end something, but it all goes in phases, it all changes. I really had to evolve a lot in my mind as a music fan to understand certain things, and if you sit there and try to [sound] like Johnny Cash, and Waylon and Willie, you're not going to go anywhere, because that's what made them so great. They can't be replicated."
This summer — on July 24th, his birthday — Niemann will hit the road with Keith Urban, a tour that promises to expose the charismatic singer, and his current album, High Noon, to a wider audience. On September 12th he'll headline the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
It's a milestone that ranks right alongside having a Number One song.
"The Ryman, or the Grand Ole Opry, they are the only places you can go and play and it's never about you. It supercedes that. You couldn't put enough talent in the building to be bigger than the Ryman," said Niemann, his eyes widening as he again unveils his country-history geekdom.
In the end, however, he just wants listeners, whether country fans or not, to give today's sounds an unbiased ear and maybe discover something new.
"There are people out there who say, 'Oh, I don't like country music because of this, cause of that,' but the truth is they just need to give it a chance," Niemann said. "If someone heard 'Donkey' and heard the George Jones reference, they may be like, 'Oh, I want to check out George Jones,' and then all of a sudden they download 'He Stopped Loving Her Today,' and now we've got a new country fan. I try to be a gateway drug to get people into country music."