NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Jerrod Niemann was a promising songwriter, so full of talent that by his mid-20s he'd already worked with Garth Brooks and was signed to Brad Paisley's publishing company.
Yet somewhere he'd gotten off the path and descended into "jaded roadie syndrome, level five."
Bloated, beer-soaked and really, really bummed out, Niemann hadn't written a song in a year.
"Basically when you sit there and you've been through a couple of record deals, gained a ton of weight and ran your girlfriend clear off to India, it's time to take a look in the mirror," Niemann said.
Often that mirror was over a bar, and it was at the Blue Bar about two years ago when everything changed for Niemann. He ran into his friend Jamey Johnson, who was fresh off the success of his album "The Lonesome Song," a piece of outsider art that had turned heads in Nashville.
Johnson, in his no-nonsense way, counseled Niemann to forge ahead. Johnson had also lost a record deal. He responded by gathering a group of friends and making an album on his own terms.
He said it changed his life and it could do the same for Niemann.
The singer-songwriter thought about it for a few weeks, then called up his friend Dave Brainard, who had a studio. He called his band together and invited in guys who had never worked on major recording projects.
"I spent a year in the studio and I was having so much fun that I lost the weight," Niemann said. "I didn't do anything crazy, just by being happy, you know. It's just amazing once you're reminded how passionate you are for something, especially music, it can be a life-changing experience. In this case, all my friends coming together and supporting my lunatic ideas in the studio in turn somehow amazingly enough turned my life around."
The result is Niemann's debut album, "Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury." It was immediately snapped up by
The 30-year-old already has a single, "Lover, Lover," in the Top 10 on Billboard's country singles chart, and new Sony CEO Gary Overton says he has very high expectations for the album.
"It's one of those albums that I kind of put in my car to scan on the way home for dinner and I had to drive around the block a few extra minutes," Overton said.
The album is comprised of 12 songs and eight skits. It's filled with Niemann's dry wit, and has a sense of humor not often seen on albums, regardless of genre.
"Judge Jerrod" opens with a movie trailer-like intro Niemann and producer Dave Brainard made using free sounds they found on
By this point, the listener knows there's something completely different going on here. And that became the point.
"There's sort of this Nashville mentality where you've sort of got to hire the 'A' players and you go into the studios and you get the top producers and you try to politic your way into working with the big-name guys," Brainard said. "We have so many talented friends around us we could just use all of our talented friends and make something just as cool as what everybody else was doing."
That's something the executives at Sony, then under CEO Joe Galante, recognized on first listen. They accepted the album as is, and Overton says it has cleared the path for similar open-minded consideration of other artists in the future.
"It's so fantastic," he said. "It's not a manufactured cookie-cutter
Niemann acknowledges he's still a little shocked that Johnson was right. Now he finds himself on the cutting edge of an independence movement.
"The moment (he was signed by Sony) I really thought the world was going to end because it changed my state of mind on not just record labels, but the way that Jamey Johnson and guys like Zac Brown have knocked down so many barriers ... other labels are starting to get confident in giving new artists an opportunity and allowing them more creative freedom," he said. "I'm not sure what plays into that the most, but I'm glad to see times changing and that they let me be a part of that."