Like many young artists, Jerrod Niemann had his share of struggles finding a place in country music. After a promising start in Nashville 10 years ago that included a co-writing credit on Garth Brooks' "Good Ride Cowboy," his career was knocked into limbo after his record label abruptly closed its doors, shelving his record.
But after learning to follow his instincts and with a little help from his friends, Niemann bounced back in a big way this summer. He debuted Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury at No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart, hit the top of the country singles heap with "Lover, Lover" and landed touring spots with Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker and Gary Allan. On Wednesday (Nov. 10), he's up for new artist of the year at the 44th annual CMA Awards show.
Not one to be content with success, however, Niemann is still pushing ahead. He recently stopped by the CMT offices to talk about his latest Top 40 hit, the straight-from-the-heart "What Do You Want," while offering some tips for young people trying to make their own dreams come true.
"More than anything else I've learned, 100 percent, is to lean on the people that are put in your life," Niemann says. In his case, he refers to friends like Randy Houser, Jamey Johnson, Lee Brice and Luke Bryan, who all made the move to Nashville around the same time.
"Try to treat everybody good ... because when you have success, it's with your friends. Music is what brings you together, but real life is what makes you brothers and sisters.
"Also, always go with your gut instinct. Because more and more I realize that your intuition is priceless. If you know something doesn't feel right and you just go with somebody else's decision, you usually regret it."
In a separate interview, Houser elaborates on the thought.
"I think he's just now getting the chance to be Jerrod," says Houser. "He's been kicked around by this business in Nashville for a long time, and there were times I felt like Jerrod wasn't being Jerrod. Now Jerrod's being Jerrod, and people don't know Jerrod's one of the funniest damn people, ever."
Niemann's newly-embraced identity may show strongly in "What Do You Want" -- but not necessarily his funny side. The singer-songwriter says it sets the tone for the more serious side of the album and describes it as "the first song I wrote from my heart, as opposed to my liver."
Written about hearing back from an ex-girlfriend after a breakup, the question asked in its title is a literal one.
"There's three reasons they're calling you," Niemann says. "One, because you haven't filled your quota of begging for them back. Two, they're trying to make you jealous. Or three, they want to make sweet nothings with you in the middle of the night."
And for him, that story is more than a hypothetical situation.
"I wrote this song 'cause I had ran that girl clear off to India. ... So, for me, I had really lost everything with her in Nashville. I started partying all the time, gained a bunch of weight, hadn't written a song in like a year. ... It was rock bottom, and I needed to do something differently. That's the first song to help me climb out of the funk. So, yeah, there was definitely somebody I had in mind."
Featuring harmonies from Rachel Bradshaw -- daughter of former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw -- the song was built from the ground up around just an acoustic guitar track, eventually to include an organ melody and some Latin-flavored percussion. Niemann's hushed vocal delivery is the track's focus, though, especially the almost hypnotic repetition found throughout the chorus.
He says the video also conjures dreamy thoughts.
"It's a black-and-white video, and it was shot real vintage and sort of abstract," says Niemann. "I didn't want it to be so focused on one particular story ... because it's their [the viewer's] imagination, and I didn't want to take away from that."
Shot on the grounds of a mansion in Nashville, the video opens with a woman expressing her loneliness in a message on Niemann's voicemail. She proposes meeting at one of their old haunts but doesn't make it clear why she's suddenly interested again. The rest of the clip shows each character getting ready in their own way -- the woman (played by Bradshaw) dresses and does makeup while Niemann puts his thoughts down on tape -- but it culminates with a twist.
"I always like twists," Niemann notes. "I know they're videos, and I doubt anybody's ever gonna see our video and be like, 'Ah, I never saw that coming!' But I still liked it."
New to on-camera performance and still feeling a little awkward, he says, "The worst part about it is hitting 'play' for the first time." But in keeping with the lessons that got him this far, he's becoming more comfortable in his own skin.
"I've most of the time been a funny, class clown sort of person. But, you know, you can't just be the funny guy everywhere."