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Jerrod Niemann talks '90s country, timeless songwriting before St. Petersburg's new country festival

Jerrod Niemann will perform at the inaugural Country Throwdown on the Bay on Oct. 14, 2018 at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. Photo: Ryan Hamblin
Jerrod Niemann will perform at the inaugural Country Throwdown on the Bay on Oct. 14, 2018 at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg. Photo: Ryan Hamblin
Published Oct. 12, 2018

Watch your feet. Because in discussing how we'll someday remember this decade in country music, Jerrod Niemann is about to drop a huge name.

"Garth Brooks told me time is good to music," said the 39-year-old singer. "I really didn't understand what he meant in that moment. But as the years go by, there's a few different definitions that come to mind."

One, he said, is how recording technology has changed a Nashville ecosystem built around session musicians. The other is about the little moments in life that country still captures well: "Maybe it was your first kiss, your first dance, high school friends chilling on the tailgate, whatever takes you back," he said. "Those songs are a snapshot in time in that way as well."

Deep talk from the guy who sang
Donkey, right? But Niemann's always had a lot to say. A prolific songwriter for artists like Brooks, Blake Shelton and Jamey Johnson, Niemann has carved out a 20-year career of his own, including No. 1 singles Drink to That All Night and Lover, Lover.

On Sunday, Niemann will play St. Petersburg's inaugural Country Music on the Bay festival, alongside Scotty McCreery and Wynonna and the Big Noise. Beforehand, he called from Nashville to talk songwriting, '90s country and more.

What's on the agenda for you today? You got sessions coming up?

Well, I wrote with the Warren Brothers yesterday, so I'm going to make a demo in my basement and send it to those guys, so they can do their version and have a little fun in the studio today.

That's Pasco County's own Warren Brothers. What do you find unique about their voice?

They don't fall into the PC world. They just call it how it is, and I love that. We click because we're all no-B.S. straight shooters. We just laugh and laugh and laugh, and I can't believe that we get to walk away with a song.

When you say they have a non-PC sensibility, do you mean like a sense of humor? Or a songwriting style?

A lot of times, (people) will say the truth when no one's paying attention, or they're in a room by themselves. But these guys just call it how it is. Whatever they say, good, bad or indifferent, it's how they truly feel. Besides their enormous talent, that's really been a catalyst for their respect in town, because they're straight shooters. Not that everybody needs to be, but it's nice to have a few in the mix to keep it real.

On This Ride you have a collaboration with Diamond Rio. Do you have a particular affinity for '90s country?

Everybody loves the music they grew up on. I was raised on '90s country, and I studied it clear back to the '20s. But the '90s, it was such a great (time). The studio musicians here in Nashville are some of the greatest on the planet, and when you get into a room with these guys and watch what they do, it's truly incredible. Now that technology has advanced to where you can do it at home, some of those guys aren't as busy as they used to be. That's probably the saddest part, is these amazing musicians aren't playing on those things.

That makes sense — there's something tangible to the '90s sound, where you can feel the musicians in the studio.

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That human element. Now it's easier, because you download the programs, there's thousands of sounds, and some of them are actual musicians. Some are artificial all the way through. But also, in the '90s, a lot of the most famous country songwriters were still alive and in the game, and they were taking that traditional sound to a new level without messing it up.

It's such a wonderful debate, talking about what's country and what's not. Willie Nelson wrote a song called Write Your Own Songs, and in one of the verses, he addresses "Mr. Purified Country," kind of saying, "Hey man, if you don't realize the world's getting smaller and we all belong, then write your own song." They were getting flak for being different, having their own voice, and people were saying they were ruining country music. Now we look at Willie and Waylon as possibly the epitome.

What do you think defines this decade in country music?

Just how diverse it can be. This is the first time that everybody can click on any song and listen to it. So your mind is not really focused just on a region, or what you're exposed to on the radio, or what your parents played. There's room for everybody. As long as they think you're being real and true to yourself and the music, there will be people that will connect, and there will be people that won't. The truth is, everybody's opinion's right. That's what's great about music, is there's no rules.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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