Hoopla

Jerrod Niemann hones his songwriting craft across the ages

Jerrod Niemann was so moved by the unity and sacrifice of the military personnel for whom he’s performed in USO shows overseas, that he wrote “Old Glory,” an anthem to let the service members and their families know they’re not forgotten. (Ryan Hamblin photo)
Jerrod Niemann was so moved by the unity and sacrifice of the military personnel for whom he’s performed in USO shows overseas, that he wrote “Old Glory,” an anthem to let the service members and their families know they’re not forgotten. (Ryan Hamblin photo)
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Country singer/songwriter Jerrod Niemann’s wordsmithing has evolved since age 8, when he penned an ode to his sister — “Amy’s Butt Looks Like a Hat” — complete with illustrations.

“It’s certainly not Song of the Year, but there was at least a central idea inside the song, so I had at least grabbed a hook (for) writing around,” he said with a laugh by phone from his Nashville homebase.

The Liberal, Kan., native, now 40, moved there at the end of 2000.

“I was just a kid, barely old enough to drink beer,” he said. That hits at the heart of his 2011 hit, “One More Drinkin’ Song” and of his 2013 chart-topper, “Drink to That All Night.”

Raising a glass isn’t the only thing on his mind, however. He also sings of love lost and found, and whatever’s in his heart at the moment. He’ll be showcasing what’s on his mind when he performs Friday night (9/27) in Cedar Rapids. The concert has been moved from the outdoor McGrath Amphitheatre to the indoor U.S. Cellular Center downtown. He’ll appear between sets by opener Tucker Beathard and headliner Granger Smith.

“Those guys are both friends of mine and extremely talented,” he said, “and just solid guys all the way through.”

They’re all storytellers, so their styles click and complement each other, creating “a cool ebb and flow of up-tempos and slow songs and happy, sad, funny — a little bit of everything,” Niemann said.

He’s looking forward to sharing the stage with them during a couple of runout concerts, tucked within his own headlining “Tall Boys and Short Stories” tour. He considers all of his songs to be short stories, often developed around a core theme from a couple of angles, with the hook of the song being a kind of punch line, he said. And sometimes he finds it easier to write “backward,” like reading the end of a book before diving into it.

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The songs that seem to mean the most to him are the ones “just bursting at the seams to want to come out, and they happen quickly,” he said.

Songwriting is a craft he’s been honing most of his life, catching industry ears. Shortly after moving to Nashville, Garth Brooks tapped him for several collaborations, including “Good Ride Cowboy.” Niemann’s songs also have been recorded by Blake Shelton, Colbie Caillat, Diamond Rio, Mark Chesnutt and other heavy-hitters.

Niemann discounts any notions of being a child prodigy. He was more like a product of his environment.

“My parents owned a roller-skating rink, so I was always around music as a kid and just associated it with fun,” he said. “I would make songs up. The only reason I would know how old I was, is that my parents were nice enough to save all these lyric sheets throughout my childhood.”

They dated each one and gathered them into a book which he received for his high school graduation.

An earlier gift set him on his instrumental path, after starting with piano lessons.

Growing up where “football is king,” and the only way concerts came to town was at the fair, he had a tough decision to make in his teens when Tracy Lawrence was playing there on the eve of a big game. The coach told the team that anyone who went to the concert wouldn’t be playing the next night.

Niemann’s mother cut him a deal. She would go to the concert, enter the prize drawing for an autographed guitar, and if she won, the teenager would have to learn how to play it. After the concert, she walked through the front door, guitar in hand.

“I played ’til my fingers bled,” Niemann said, noting the strings stuck off the neck about an inch, which is hard on the fingers.

Niemann has been paying it forward, putting starter guitars in the hands of kids through his nonprofit program, “Free the Music USA.”

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He’s also excited to team up with the USO, donating five guitars to every USO center on bases across the country. The kids can then take guitar lessons off the internet, and also have a way to make connections, which can be hard when their families move a lot.

So Niemann just hangs out with them, shows them a thing or two on guitar, and “they start making friends immediately,” he said. “I know there’s a million things we could be focusing on with our veterans and our ex-military. The kids deserve to have a good life, too.”

He’s hoping the tools he’s been given will help.

“Since I never wore the uniform,” he said, “all you can do is hear stories and try to interpret them and do what you can.”

‘OLD GLORY’

USO tours to 15 countries also laid another very tangible interpretation on his heart, through his new tribute anthem, “Old Glory.”

It grew out of “just having the opportunity and honor to go overseas to some of these countries that you only hear about on the news, and not for good reason,” he said. “What I realized on the way home, is that I got more out of it than maybe anybody else, because it changed my life forever.”

Being in Iraq around Christmas, he heard heart-wrenching stories, from one soldier whose wife left him on Christmas Eve over the phone, to another one whose mother died two weeks before Christmas, and he didn’t get to go to her funeral.

“I just started thinking, we’re obviously aware they can potentially lose their lives, their limbs, their minds, and that‘s clearly enough. I know I don’t deserve anybody sacrificing that much for me. But just to know all those things I didn’t think about — there’s just endless amounts of sacrifices. I just wanted other civilians to be aware, and also the service members and their families to know they’re not forgotten and we’re paying attention.”

He sings the song in every concert, keeping politics out of the equation.

“For me, what was so interesting when we were in Iraq, being onstage that night, I looked across this whole room, and everybody had our flag on their sleeve. Literally, you couldn’t paint a more diverse picture of human beings in this room. I can’t imagine their stories and their backgrounds, but I’m sure it would be pretty impressive and unique.

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“I thought how ironic is it, here we are, halfway across the world and the most united Americans are in this room, because they know this person has my back when I leave this building. It was really inspiring for me to see it was all about that. It was pretty amazing.

“That being said, what’s been impressive is that no matter where we played ‘Old Glory’ in our country, I think everybody realizes when we perform it, that it isn’t politics, it’s our fellow Americans, and that’s the way I hope people walk away from it. We’ve never had anybody other than respect it, and that means the world to me, because I wrote it truly from the heart, and that’s it.”

GET OUT!

WHAT: Granger Smith with Jerrod Niemann and Tucker Beathard

WHERE: Moved from the outdoor McGrath Amphitheatre to the indoor U.S. Cellular Center arena, 370 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (9/27)

TICKETS: $26.50 to $46.50, U.S. Cellular Center Box Office, 1- (800) 745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com (Previously purchased tickets will be honored at the new site.)

ARTISTS’ WEBSITE: grangersmith.com, jerrodniemannofficial.com and tuckerbeathard.com

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