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HOT DISH: Jerrod Niemann's Liberal (Kansas) Values
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Hot Dish
Hot Dish
(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel's Hot Dish: Cookin' With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT's Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

The good ole USA has never elected a president from Liberal, Kan., but the way it looks these days, we could very well have a superstar who grew up there. Liberal is a tiny town in the western part of the state -- just north of the Oklahoma line and not all that far from Texas, according to the town's favorite son, Jerrod Niemann.

Jerrod's pals include heavy hitters like Jamey Johnson, Dallas Davidson, Randy Houser, Chris Young and Lee Brice. As a matter of fact, Jerrod and Lee have been hitting college towns this spring on their recent Higher Education tour. (It's my guess they've educated themselves about where the prettiest girls study.)

As a child, Jerrod's parents owned a skating rink where he became an expert on eight wheels when he was only 7, rolling in circles while looking daring and dangerous to the music of Queen, Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith. His saving grace was surely the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira." So good on skates, Jerrod joined the nonprofit organization Kansas Kids, a division of American Kids, where he competed in talent competitions, going on to win the national finals with another country song, "Texas Tornado."

By age 8, he was writing songs. He found legendary songwriters Whitey Shafer ("All My Ex's Live in Texas"), Dean Dillon ("The Chair") and Paul Overstreet ("On the Other Hand)" to be influential in his songwriting. Years later, as fate would have it, he went on to co-write with all three of them. At the tender age of 10, he performed original songs in local talent shows in Kansas and continued writing through his days in high school. While attending college at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, he recorded his debut album, Long Hard Road in Clovis, N.M.

He began his professional music career by singing and playing acoustic guitar in Texas clubs and bars, including the Stockyard Saloon and White Elephant Saloon in the Fort Worth Stockyards. He released Long Hard Road in 1999 and moved to Nashville a year later.

In 2001, he was contacted by Garth Brooks to collaborate with fellow songwriter Richie Brown. Jerrod co-wrote three singles for Garth -- "Good Ride Cowboy" (a tribute to Chris LeDoux), "That Girl Is a Cowboy" and "Midnight Sun." "Good Ride Cowboy" earned Jerrod a BMI award as one of radio's most-played songs in 2005. His songs have also been recorded by his pal Jamey as well as Blake Shelton, Neal McCoy, Julie Roberts, John Anderson and others.

Jerrod enjoyed his success as a songwriter, but he wanted to sing. He signed a developmental deal with Mercury Records, but nothing was ever released, so he exited. He and his band continued to play clubs. He actually toured in Europe with the band Kane. He signed with an indie label and released a single, "I Love Women (My Mama Can't Stand)." Unfortunately, the company went out of business before his album, Behind This Microphone, was released.

"Bad went to worse," Jerrod told me. "I was at rock bottom. I had horrible depression. I ran off the girl I was dating, and she moved clear to India. I gained 60 pounds -- looked like the Stay Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. Didn't write a song in a year. I ran into Jamey Johnson. Jamey said, 'Man, I can tell you're not yourself. Why don't you go cut a record?

"That's what I did. Took a year. I lost every bit of that weight. It's amazing how doing something you love can change your inner self and your outward appearance."

By this time, Jerrod was writing songs for Sea Gayle Music, the publishing company owned by Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois and Frank Rogers. After playing the album for them, they wanted to shop it to Arista Nashville, Brad's label home.

Jerrod agreed under one condition -- that not a single note on the album could be changed. Believe it or not, Arista signed him and consented to release the album "as is."

His debut single, "Lover, Lover," released in 2010, was originally written and recorded by the rock band Sonia Dada under the title of "You Don't Treat Me No Good." Their version went to No. 1 in Australia in 1992, and Jerrod's "Lover, Lover" topped the U.S. country chart in August 2010. The song is included on his Arista album, Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, and has nine vocal parts that were all recorded by Jerrod himself.

He'd intended to get pals like Jamey, Randy and Lee to sing on the album, but when he recorded it, he didn't have a record deal and knew it would be virtually impossible to get their respective labels to grant permission for them to be on his album. His co-producer, Dave Brainard, suggested Jerrod sing all the parts, so he did. He sang eight of the nine parts but had some problems hitting the notes for the low one. In the name of country music, the two of them went to the Tin Roof restaurant and bar near Music Row to visit their friend, Jack. (Jack Daniel's, that is.) When he awoke the next morning, Jerrod says he sounded like a mix between Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys and the Grape Ape cartoon character. But it worked. You can't argue with a No. 1 hit.

Jerrod has just been added to Brad Paisley's H20 II tour that starts May 20.

Have You Heard the News?
Martina McBride, Ronnie Milsap and Little Big Town will perform at the Dale Franklin Award gala honoring the Country Music Association on May 17 at the Renaissance Hotel. Martina will host of the event, guitarist Steve Gibson will lead the house band and the salute will be produced by Robert Deaton of Deaton Flanigen Productions.

Tim McGraw recently kicked off his Emotional Traffic tour in Corpus Christi, Texas, with special guests Luke Bryan and The Band Perry. Playing arenas and amphitheaters, Tim and his friends will cover at least 60 cities through August.

Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson appeared last week on American Idol, performing "Don't You Wanna Stay." Their recording of the song is certified platinum for sales of 1 million downloads.

If you love great music, I urge you to check out A Mother's Prayer, the new album by the great man of music, Dr. Ralph Stanley. The title song, written by Ronnie Bowman and Shawn Lane, will melt the hardest heart as Ralph's mountainous solo weaves the love of a praying mother. Other standouts include "Prince of Peace" (written circa 1870) and "Come All You Tender Hearted," both arranged by Stanley.

On the road in North Carolina, the Grascals caught a 6 a.m. flight out of Charlotte on April 10 and arrived in Florence, Ariz., in time to open Country Thunder at noon the same day. Their next stop was Scottsdale, Ariz., and the home of actor Steven Seagal for their third year to perform at his birthday party. Then it was off to L.A. for appearances on two CBS series -- The Talk and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson -- plus a couple of club gigs before arriving home in Music Town early on the morning of April 13.

Phil Vassar returned to his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., on April 7 to play an annual benefit for the Miller Home for Girls. Joined by his friends in Little Big Town, both acts donated 100 percent of the proceeds from the concert to the home that provides short-term or long-term care and guidance to non-delinquent girls, ages 4-18, who cannot live with their own families.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Warm Taco Dip.
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