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

Watch your feet. Because in discussing how weíll 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 didnít understand what he meant in that moment. But as the years go by, thereís 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 Niemannís 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. Petersburgís inaugural Country Music on the Bay festival, alongside Scotty McCreery and Wynonna and the Big Noise. Beforehand, he called from Nashville to talk songwriting, í90s country and more.

Whatís on the agenda for you today? You got sessions coming up?

Well, I wrote with the Warren Brothers yesterday, so Iím 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.

Thatís Pasco Countyís own Warren Brothers. What do you find unique about their voice?

They donít fall into the PC world. They just call it how it is, and I love that. We click because weíre all no-B.S. straight shooters. We just laugh and laugh and laugh, and I canít 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 oneís paying attention, or theyíre in a room by themselves. But these guys just call it how it is. Whatever they say, good, bad or indifferent, itís how they truly feel. Besides their enormous talent, thatís really been a catalyst for their respect in town, because theyíre straight shooters. Not that everybody needs to be, but itís 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 í90s country?

Everybody loves the music they grew up on. I was raised on í90s country, and I studied it clear back to the í20s. But the í90s, 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, itís truly incredible. Now that technology has advanced to where you can do it at home, some of those guys arenít as busy as they used to be. Thatís probably the saddest part, is these amazing musicians arenít playing on those things.

That makes sense ó thereís something tangible to the í90s sound, where you can feel the musicians in the studio.

That human element. Now itís easier, because you download the programs, thereís thousands of sounds, and some of them are actual musicians. Some are artificial all the way through. But also, in the í90s, 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.

Itís such a wonderful debate, talking about whatís country and whatís 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 donít realize the worldís 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 youíre exposed to on the radio, or what your parents played. Thereís room for everybody. As long as they think youíre being real and true to yourself and the music, there will be people that will connect, and there will be people that wonít. The truth is, everybodyís opinionís right. Thatís whatís great about music, is thereís no rules.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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