With his breakout No. 1 hit a couple of years back, Jerrod Niemann complained: "Lover, lover, you don't treat me no good no more." His brand new single, "Only God Could Love You More," is another break-up song… or another might-break-up song. But it's a far less blithe ballad in which Niemann means to convince his faltering lover-lover that all that goodness doesn't necessarily have to come to an end.
Niemann and his band performed these two very different songs for the Yahoo!/Our Country cameras and sat down with us afterward to discuss what they mean to him.
"I feel like this song has connected more than maybe any song that I've ever had the opportunity to record," said Niemann, discussing "Only God Could Love You More," which just entered the Billboard airplay top 40 with a bullet. Through hearing it, he believes, "maybe somebody will find their way back to the person they love—or maybe they'll realize it's time to move on." Either way, "hopefully it's a message that'll connect."
"You know, relationships are crazy," he continued. "I certainly don't pretend to have any advice for anyone. But I do think there's that breaking point where a couple will have to realize, 'What are we gonna do? Is it time to move on? We're at the crossroads.' And when there's that moment of truth, when someone is really about to walk out the door… I've made mistakes in my life in relationships, and I do know (how it is) when you have that feeling for somebody, that there really is nobody at that moment that could love the person like you could—except for of course God."
There's a little less divinity in "Lover, Lover," though you could say that maybe somebody up there must have liked the song, since Niemann's very first major-label single shot to No. 1 in 2010.
Recalls Niemann, "I didn't know if anybody was even gonna hear it," much less have it top the charts. "'Lover, Lover' was very unconventional to put out as a first single. But the record label was very gung-ho about it and they said 'Man, we have a feeling about this song.' It happened to be the last song that I recorded for the project, sort of on a whim. And obviously I'm very, very thankful that I did. It's one of those songs that changed my life and changed the lives of everybody that's on stage with me today. Some singles are more important live—like, 'One More Drinkin' Song' does better live than necessarily it did on the radio. But 'Lover, Lover' is one of those where I'm very thankful that it has covered the spectrum of being a commercial hit but also fun to play live. It just also shows us in the future that when you have that gut feeling to go in and record something, not to hold back."
For a while, that freshman smash was all audiences knew him for, even as its ubiquity on country radio afforded him some headlining slots. "I remember when we just had 'Lover, Lover' out, we would go play these fairs and it would be for 90 minutes and about halfway thought they'd start screaming 'Lover, Lover.' And I'm thinking 'Trust me, I'm wanting to get there as bad as you!'"
Like most country performers, Niemann is a road dog. "Every song that we have performed today has been road-tested a couple hundred times," he said proudly at the Yahoo! taping. He spent the first half of 2012 opening for Miranda Lambert and the second half out on his own, for a total of about 260 days spent traveling and performing from sea to shining sea. "I think once you get used to being on the road, it's hard to sleep in a bed that's not moving," he joked.
But if he had to pick, Niemann says he loves writing and recording even more than performing. "It's two completely different feelings, but I think for me the creative process is probably the most exciting. There's nothing more exciting for me than to stand on stage and sing something that came from my heart—or sometimes even my liver," he smiles. "And of course it's a huge honor anytime someone like Blake Shelton or anybody else has been kind enough to record my music in the past," he adds, referring to the days when he was cranking out tunes for other artists, like Shelton's "You'll Always Be Beautiful," which Niemann co-wrote a few years back with buddy Lee Brice.
Now he has a sophomore album out, Free the Music. What this assuredly has in common with his 2010 major-label bow, Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, is the evidence on view that Jerrod loves making fully formed albums, not just singles.
"For me, whether it's Garth Brooks or Red Hot Chili Peppers, they've all made amazing albums that are worth listening to all the way through, and I just never want to see that go away," Niemann says. "It's so exciting to get turned onto an entire record. And I love to see where people have challenged themselves and how far they're gonna go outside the limits or if they're going to stay inside a certain mindset. It seems kind of bizarre to say 'Okay, every song has to be 3 and a half minutes or under' and 'Every song has to be an up-tempo positive love song' and go through all this criteria of what a song should be. It bums me out that we can't put a six-minute song of just jamming out with the guys on an album, to show somebody a different side of us. So it definitely means a lot to me to go into the studio and make a record. And it breaks my heart to see this digital age where that's the future, for people to say, 'Oh it's just gonna be one song.' But I wish everybody would continue to search the Internet and to go through and try to find more than that one song and say, 'Hey, where do all these folks come from?' I hope the album never disappears."
Niemann is determined that each of his albums should have a separate personality, too. "As human beings, all of us have different moods, different layers, different elements, so to make the same redundant album is just confusing to me," he says. "I think every album should have its own identity. I don't have any children, but I imagine if you have a child, you wouldn't want them to all just be exactly the same."
Not that he'd ever want style to trump substance. "At the end of the day, that's what Nashville's about: it's all about the song. And you can dress a pig up for prom, but it's still a pig in a prom dress. But for us, it's fun to have this song and truly believe that the song is there, and then go in and try to put colors in it that normally may not be found here in Nashville."
With Free the Music, that involved putting a horn section on every tune. Only God could love horns more, right? But lest you think that's a trademark indulgence of his, keep in mind that Niemann's previous album didn't have any horns on it at all.
"We used horns on every single song," he affirms. "For me, that was learning to dig deep—clear back to the '20s of country music—and realizing that the pedal steel guitar that we all kind of look at as the epitome or nucleus of our format really wasn't invented until 1948. And I found out that horns have been in country music well over a decade before that, clear back to the '30s with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, on up through Tex Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, and just all these heroes that made us want to move to town."
Don't expect this to be a template for the future. "I don't think I'll ever do an album again with the horns on it in its entirety—maybe a song or two. But what I'd like to do is maybe within the first three albums, carve out what we like to do, where we've shown all different elements and sides to our music, and then when we go into the studio after that, we'll probably just merge 'em all down the road until not even my mom wants to buy one," he says with a laugh.
Niemann uses his live band on his records… or takes his studio band on tour, depending on how you look at it. With his current album and road jaunt, that extends to bringing the horn section on tour. Isn't that a little bit expensive, having to make room for a few more guys on the bus?
"Well, there's two things I've never been accused of: being a marketing genius or being very smart with money," he laughs. "So for me, I would much rather not have a penny to my name and be able to play music the way that we want to present it and just put the pedal to the metal. And also, if you play on our album, we kinda want you in the band. That's kind of the deal: for everyone who played on our record, I was like 'Hey, you're gonna have to come on the road with us.' And it's been so fun to get on stage and play a piece of Bob Wells and His Texas Playboys, or some Johnny Cash, or even the Family Guy theme song. It just depends on, I guess, the pre-gaming; sometimes the pre-gaming decides before you get onstage what you play. The crowds seem to be having fun with it, and hopefully we'll get to keep the guys out as long as country music will let us."
But he's also aware that sometimes simpler is better. When it came to "Only God Could Love You More," he didn't want to distract from the ballad's powerful message with sonic clutter.
"With, say, 'Lover, Lover,' there's nine vocal parts on that. But on 'Only God Could Love You More,' there's just the lead vocal; there's no harmonies. When you have that kind of message in real life and you're telling somebody that, you're kind of on your own at that moment. And I didn't want to hide behind anything. I wanted that to be right out there, right up front." As for the ballad's arrangement, "I normally probably would have used strings, cello or violins, but since we were using horns kind of as this new centerpiece for some of our music, I learned that the French horn can sound very orchestral."
The third song that Niemann performed for Yahoo! Music is "Shinin' On Me." It sounds upbeat and even effervescent, but he notes that it has a darker undercurrent, or at least "many layers and many interpretations."
"It's obviously meant to just hopefully be cranked up and change someone's mood—make 'em want to tap their foot and smile rather than drive their car off the road. And so that was kind of the goal" with "Shinin' On Me," he says. "But if you really dig into some of the words, it's not necessarily meant to be on a sunny day. It's saying 'Hey, sometimes life doesn't always go the way that you want it to, but it's okay to put it on pause and enjoy the moment with the people that you're around.' I wrote it with some buddies when we were in Austin, Texas out at Lake Travis, and that was one of those moments when you think 'Man, it doesn't always matter what's going on, good or bad, in life sometimes; you've got to be in the moment.'"