'Free' at last 

Rap has long held domain over comedy skits between songs until country crooner Jerrod Niemann laid claim to them with his breakout 2010 album, Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury.

“We were just laughing, having a blast and couldn’t stop between takes,” said the self-described half-Oklahoman who grew up in Liberal, Kan. “We’d get these jokes on tape, and I felt like that was just as much a part of the album as the songs.”

The funniest thing about it is, Niemann never thought the disc would see the light of day.

He got his start as a songwriter, nabbing the chance to pen some tunes for the one and only Garth Brooks (including “Good Ride Cowboy”). Soon after, the record deals came rolling in. He inked one, only for it to disappear as quick as it came. Another followed, and then it went again.

Still without a major-label release 10 years after signing his first deal, Niemann consoled himself with booze ... and lots of it.

“I just hoped another door would open, and I didn’t know what else to do. I was gaining weight, partying every night, hiding from everybody,” Niemann said. “Jamey Johnson pulled me aside and told me to record an album and get my butt in the studio.”

Johnson, having just done the same after failed deals and earning a trio of Grammy nominations for his trouble, put Niemann back on track and writing again. But where Johnson went dark, Niemann went light. Enter the jokes.

“I didn’t want it to seem like I was copying Jamey,” he said. “He recorded his in a thick of depression; I was in the same spot, but I wanted it to be the opposite. I wanted it to uplift people.”

Judge Jerrod found its way across country heavyweight Brad Paisley’s lap, who, in turn, took it to Sony, which opted to release the album just as recorded.

“They didn’t change a note,” Niemann said.

He had the same freedom when it came to release the follow-up, Free the Music, which hit shelves last month.

“We had a rare opportunity to make whatever kind of country album we wanted,” he said. “We dug deeply to find something special. Instrumentation was our concept. A lot of it was due to the legend of Bob Wills putting horns into country music. I love the uniqueness of it.”

Emotionally, it doesn’t stray too far from the ground Judge Jerrod treaded, still celebrating love, laughter and music even in the roughest of rough patches.

“We all love music,” Niemann said of the title. “Music always makes life cooler, and this was a statement about letting music be a part of your life every day.”

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