It has been said that those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat it. In music, however, sometimes that's exactly the point: to learn from history and repeat it with your own spin. This week, we've got two artists in two different genres sharing the spotlight as they approach their history from two distinctly different directions: one is a country star on the rise and the other is a group of old friends who are preparing for a return to add to their legacy.
When Jerrod Neimann set out to make his latest album, Free The Music, his focus wasn't on redefining country so much as taking from its past and refining it to create something fresh. If you're already familiar with Neimann, chances are it's from his cross-over country hit with the big pop hook, "Lover, Lover," and his latest hit single, which moves into Jimmy Buffett/Zac Brown territory, "Shinin' On Me."
In all honesty, those two singles alone would normally be enough for me to write Neimann off as yet another pop act jumping on the country bandwagon, but with hooks that big, he had me intrigued enough to check out his new album. What I found was an incredibly layered album that touched on multiple decades of country.
As Neimann prepares to bring his Free the Music Tour to Tulsa on Thursday night, I got to catch up with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. I found that while he's definitely a modern country artist, he's also well versed in the genre's history and has made a conscious effort to incorporate where country music has been into where it's going.
In laying the groundwork for this album, we revisited his last album briefly. Neimann said, "I'd been through two record deals that didn't work out, had gained weight and was really getting kind of down; I ran into Jeremy Johnson, who's a friend of mine, and he said, 'Why not just go make an album on your own? I'll even help pay for it.'
"Looking back, I wish I had [let Johnson pay for it]," he said with a laugh, "but I got to thinking about it and thought 'That makes sense,' so I just went to the guys in my band and we recorded it at home. Eventually, Brad Paisley heard it and took it to Sony and they picked it up."
In retrospect, Neimann admits there were probably things on the album that didn't need to be there, but after investing his own time and money into making it, he stood his ground to release the album as he originally conceived and recorded it and the label relented. "When 'Lover, Lover' hit, I just kept writing and recording," he said.
What sets Free the Music apart is two-fold. First is an innovative new technology called CLASP, which allows the artist to record in analogue, then automatically transfers the recording to digital. That allowed Neimann to get a warmer, classic analogue sound, yet the ability to re-record and edit with digital technology, furthering the creative process.
Secondly, Neimann looked past classic country to its roots and tried to incorporate that into what he does now. "To a lot of people, pedal steel kind of defines country music and what it sounds like, but Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had horns well before there was pedal steel," he said. "That's actually part of our forgotten history in country. I looked at that and a few other things and before I knew it, we had seven or eight different twists on the genre."
"A lot of people hear what's on the radio and think that's country music," he explained.
"For me, I look back to the '20s with Jimmy Rodgers and hear a country boy trying to play some blues. Later, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys were country boys playing something else. I thought, 'Let's take all of these different things and cram them all together.'"
As a result, Neimann put together an album that may not seem very country with a single, cursory spin, but once you give it a few more listens, it opens up in layers. It may open up slightly unconventionally, mashing a little Dixieland jazz with a funky rhythm and even a little pedal steel on the chorus on the title track. But this serves as the door that opens the rest of the album up. As the lyrics say, "You've got to free your mind / it's hard at times..."
Once you dig in, Neimann successfully intertwines classic, '70s era country on "Whiskey Kinda Way" with modern country in his current hit "Shinin' on Me." What you don't notice upon the first couple of listens is how he subtly ties it all together with the instrumentation: horns infiltrate the entire album, sometimes sitting in the forefront and other times in the background arrangements. The other, more subtle, touch is the use of acoustic bass on the entire album, holding it together with very organic tones from beginning to end.
Between the album and an entertaining and enlightening conversation, it's obvious that Neimann is more in touch with his country roots than you might initially think, and he uses that to help focus on the future. As we wrapped up, we got to the ongoing question of what really constitutes country music, especially as contemporary country continues to incorporate more pop.
"My favorite argument," he said, "is look at Elvis Presley: He's in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the country hall of fame. So are Johnny Cash and Bob Wills. There's obviously some common ground."
When discussing how he incorporated so many different elements into the new album, Neimann simply said, "I'm not the first to do it and hopefully I won't be the last. In country music, it's all about the song. I just knew I was looking to do something a little different -- that's the reason I wrote every song myself with the help of some friends."
When digging a little deeper, it's clear that Neimann isn't just another pop artist riding the country wave. Instead, he's a country boy riding the wave of technology to marry the genre's history with its future. Now, I'm interested in seeing just how that translates on the live stage. You can find out as well when Jerrod Neimann plays Cain's Ballroom this Thursday night, Nov. 8.
Writing a New Chapter
If you've kept your ear to the ground, you may have heard rumors of the return of one of Christian music's most solid hard rock bands. I got a call a couple of weeks ago, just before an official announcement was made, and can confirm it's true: Tulsa-based Pillar will be returning to the studio in 2013 with an eye on releasing a new album, hopefully by summer.
I got the opportunity to sit down with front man Rob Beckley to discuss the reunion and he was incredibly transparent about the whole process and how it came about.
First, just to clear up any questions, Beckley said, "This is the lineup everyone knows and thinks of when they think of Pillar: It's me and Mike/Kalel [Wittig, on bass], Noah [Henson] on guitar and Lester [Estelle] on drums."
The reason for the clarification is that in 2009, Beckley and Henson recorded Pillar's last album, Confessions, and toured with a different lineup, which included Rich Gilliland on bass and Taylor Carrol on drums, before the band went on hiatus. Now that time has passed, however, what many consider to be the band's classic lineup is coming back together with a new focus.
"Basically, this comes from just a very genuine place of restoration," Beckley said. "We're all better friends now and everyone's head is on straight. We're all on the same page and no one is sidetracked with other priorities or side projects or anything else. This is a moment we all knew would happen, but we had to let it happen naturally."
The band put out word of the reunion just a couple of weeks ago, making the announcement via a YouTube post on Oct. 17 with the four members getting together via an Internet chat on Skype, asking fans what they wanted the band to talk about. They followed up a few days later with the official announcement that they would be getting back together to work on a new album.
As Beckley explained, the band has always been interactive with its fans. Even after a prolonged hiatus, the fans are still relatively vocal, so the band decided to use the Internet and YouTube videos to engage the fans and start things off on a grass roots level, which is how the band really got its footing to begin with.
Beckley also clarified that there are no plans for the band to start touring again. "This is just us getting together for a record," he said. "We all have other things going on and we all have families. We don't want to drag our families through that again. This isn't for personal recognition or anything like that. The reason we're doing it is because the timing just feels right -- and we're doing it to inspire people."
Granted, all of the members have kept busy during Pillar's down time. Beckley has been working as a music minister at a church in Tulsa and Wittig has been focused on his own business ventures since stepping out of Stars Go Dim almost a year ago. Wittig is also busy at home with four kids, while Beckley has a fourth on the way.
Noah Henson and Lester Estelle are both based in Nashville, with Henson doing a lot of production work and Estelle busy as a studio player and as the touring drummer for Big & Rich. Nevertheless, there's a common bond between these four guys that is drawing them back together to do their first album with this lineup since 2006. Although details haven't been finalized, the group has spoken with Travis Wyrick, who produced the band during its peak years, and Wyrick will likely be at the helm, helping shape the band's sound yet again.
After discussing the band's history and what's to come, Beckley ultimately shared that the group is taking its time and going step by step. "We're just incredibly thankful for the opportunities we've been given. There's been some healing that has come with the time we took off and this is coming from a really genuine place, so we're all really looking forward to it."
Be sure to keep an eye and ear out for more information as the new album comes together and Pillar reemerges with new material in 2013.
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