MARYSVILLE — When Jerrod Niemann talks about his role as a country music songwriter, to help identify with fans he ironically tells the story of a fictional guy who passionately hates country music.
But one day that guy suddenly finds his life completely upended, he said. Perhaps the guy gets laid off from work. His wife leaves him and takes the kids. Maybe he is driving in his car, alone on the highway, and realizes he hit rock bottom.
Then turns on the radio, Niemann said, and hears a country song he connects to on a deeply personal level. Maybe it’s Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. And suddenly it all makes sense. He becomes a country music fan for life.
“That’s my job. That’s my reason for playing,” Niemann said.
It’s his duty, he said, to create music people can easily enjoy and relate to.
On a day off from his rigorous touring schedule, Niemann was relaxing at his home in Nashville when he took time to talk about his upcoming show sponsored by Richwood Bank in Marysville for the All Ohio Balloon Fest on Thursday, Aug. 14.
Niemann said he has performed in Ohio “maybe a dozen times” over the past several years.
“I have a lot of great memories of Ohio already,” he said. “Plus, I know it will mean a lot to JR.”
Niemann is referring to fellow band member, JR McCoy.
A 1999 Fairbanks High School graduate, McCoy followed his musical aspirations out of Ohio and ended up in Nashville as a sought after multi-instrumentalist and songwriter.
Niemann said a misunderstanding actually led to his friendship with McCoy.
“I met him through a friend,” he said. “But for some reason, I always thought that he was from Nebraska. So, every time I’d see him I’d ask about some Nebraska sports team that was playing at the time.”
McCoy would humor him, he said, and politely talk about whatever Nebraska team Niemann brought up.
Until one day, he said, McCoy confronted him about it.
“Why do you always ask me about Nebraska?” McCoy said.
“I thought you said you were from Nebraska,” Niemann said.
“No man, I’m from Ohio,” McCoy said.
They had a good laugh about that, Niemann said, and it all worked out for the best. Ohio has better teams to talk about anyway.
“Since then,” Niemann said, “I’ve sort of become an honorary Buckeye. (McCoy) takes me to games. He’s friends with some of the coaches and they set us up on the 50-yard line, right up front.”
To the musically uninitiated, Niemann’s touring scheduled of 200 shows a year is significant.
It’s also interesting to point out that the story he tells of the fictional man who learns to love country music; in many ways is the story of his own life.
As a struggling Nashville musician since 2000, Niemann co-wrote songs that appeared on nearly 10 million albums, sold by artists such as Garth Brooks, Jamey Johnson, Julie Roberts, Blake Shelton and more. But when his record deal turned sour, and a longtime relationship ended, Niemann sank into depression. He ended up losing his motivation as a songwriter. He tolled around a bit lost for a year.
With the support of some friends, Niemann said, he learned to love country music again. With fresh perspective, he set out to find his own voice and renew his dream.
Niemann exploded back onto the country music scene with his 2010 album “Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury,” which featured the number one hit, “Lover, Lover.a”
“When you are sitting in Nashville trying to make it, you’re just staring at the wall hoping for a break,” he said. “So we’re very thankful to be out there all the time. It’s great staying busy. It’s a crazy business.”
The fun of the current tour, he said, is switching it up between opening for Keith Urban to stadium crowds, and then doing his own shows to smaller theaters. The large crowds give him an opportunity to reach out to new fans, but his own shows allow him to switch gears, pull out some old country standards, and generally embrace all the different styles of music he loves.
In the end, his love of traditional country actually fuels his modern approach to songwriting.
“If you look at all the country music legends, from Willie to Johnny Cash, all these guys stepped out and did their own thing. You realize there is no point in trying to be Willie or Johnny Cash because they already did it,” he said. “You have to exist with the planet. The times have changed.”
Niemann enjoys trying to challenge listeners, pushing his creativity to the limit. He said musicians like Eric Church or Luke Bryan gave country music songwriters “room to stretch,” and go crazy if they wanted to. He feels a greater freedom to pursue the sound he hears in his head.
“My goal is to keep pushing through,” he said.
Niemann now has the luxury of fleshing out all those ideas by recording in his own home studio.
“I’ll grab a 12-pack of beer. And somehow the 12-pack of beer disappears throughout the day and you end up with songs,” he joked.
But ever since hitting the top of the country music charts, Niemann said, he discovered a whole new challenge. Back when he was unsigned and writing songs in Nashville, it was easy to see where the music industry was headed next.
“Once you are in the thick of it, it is so hard to see. It’s definitely tougher when you’re on the inside looking out,” Niemann said.
His passion for music remains intact though. The other day, he said, he was playing a Waylon Jennings cover show with Shooter Jennings and other players, all doing old traditional songs to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research. His family was there. His friends were there. It was truly a good night.
“It’s those moment that I cherish,” he said.
General admission seats remain available via www.Ticketfly.com or www.allohioballoonfest.com, as well as all Richwood Bank locations and the Marysville Journal-Tribune office at 207 N. Main St.
Attendees are asked to bring their lawn chairs, but leave the coolers at home.
CLICK IMAGE TO DOWNLOAD THE POSTER