Ruminating on the risks that have defined his career, Jerrod Niemann quotes a verse from "Write Your Own Songs," a Willie Nelson tune that is nearly as old as him:
"Mr. Purified Country, don’t you know what the whole thing’s about?/Is your head up your ass so far that you can’t pull it out?/The world’s getting smaller, and everyone in it belongs/If you can’t see that, Mr. Music Executive, why don’t you just write your own songs?"
"That just shows you that they were getting flack for messing with the tradition of country music," Niemann muses to Rolling Stone. "When you decide to step out on a limb, you are going to get people who think you’re hurting something that they love so much. But in reality, every artist who’s been successful was daring to be different."
On his new album, High Noon, out March 25, Niemann doesn’t necessarily give Mr. Purified Country the middle finger, but he does take his brand of country music to sonically innovative and admittedly polarizing levels. Take, for instance, "Drink to That All Night," the album’s first single. Its lyrics alone read like a good, old-fashioned drinking song that the Luke Bryans and Toby Keiths of the country world have cut a million times. But Niemann throws listeners for an Auto-Tuned loop by practically rapping two verses over an electronic dance beat. The track travels into a more familiar, country-rock neighborhood by the chorus, but it remains one of the most unique songs to crack the country singles chart’s Top 20 in a long time.
The 34-year-old singer predicts that his record label will want to keep riding this audacious wave by releasing the slapstick "Donkey" as the project’s next single, and that’s something he admits scares him. ("But if they have the balls to do it, I have the balls to do it," he laughs.) Like its predecessor, the song’s lyrics could’ve been plucked off the Grand Ole Opry stage, but its melody is hoedown-meets-hip-hop.
"I’m very rarely speechless, but I sat there for about three minutes and then said, 'What in the world did I just hear?'" Niemann reminisces of his first introduction to the demo for "Donkey." "So I put it on a playlist on the bus, and no matter who we had on – friends, radio promoters – every time it came on, it stopped everyone in their tracks."
Though High Noon gets most of its buzz from party songs, those songs never crowd out Niemann’s soulful voice and talent for crafting relatable storylines. The groom-to-be, set to marry longtime girlfriend Morgan Petek this October, rounds out the disc with more emotive tracks, such as the sensuous "She’s Fine," the piano-driven "The Real Thing" and the fiancée-inspired "Lucky #7."
"Any time a guy gets engaged, he should realize he outkicked his coverage," Niemann says. "I know that I’m more of a fixer-upper. She was allured to the underdog she could mold."
The humble singer shies from a compliment on the album’s diversity, instead crediting his co-producer, Jimmie Lee Sloas, who has worked with everyone from Carrie Underwood to Megadeth. Niemann admits that in recording his own demos at home, as he does for every album, he can get a bit too experimental.
“I have a room at my house called the red room. It’s not like 50 Shades of Grey or anything, but I have this red shag carpet, red walls, red ceiling – it’s crazy. I record down there and then take those tracks to the studio. I’d make the most bizarre version of a song, and then (Sloas) would figure out a way to rein it in.”
Just not so far in that it gets lost in the neutral zone. Niemann takes criticism for his boundary-bending music very seriously – and with a serious sense of validation.
"I’ve heard great songs that I’d love to record but don’t, because I don’t think it would make anybody feel anything," he insists. "I’d rather someone love or hate it passionately. It’s time to rattle the cages."