October 06, 2017 08:25 PM

Each of his first three albums, says Jerrod Niemann, were meant to be “a 40-minute vacation” chock full of uptempo, party-hearty tunes like “One More Drinkin’ Song.”

But life changes pushed the singer, 38, in search of a wider range of emotions for his latest album, This Ride, released Friday.

Fans have already been able to hear the difference between his last hit, 2014’s “Drink to That All Night,” and the new album’s first solo single, “God Made a Woman.”

The earlier one is “a song from the boy I was,” says Niemann, and the latest – a ballad of redemption – is “the song of the man I want to be.”

Most of the other cuts fill out the gamut of love – from longing to new romance to heartbreak – though Niemann has left a little space for his stock in trade: “Feelin’” is properly soaked in alcohol, and “The Regulars” is a hard-driving rocker set in a barroom.

“There’s more heart and less liver on this,” says Niemann, “but there’s still a little bit of liver.”

Ryan Hamblin

The album is also notable for its broad array of tempos, all conveyed with a light studio touch that evokes the immediacy of live performance.

Why the shift in themes and tone?

Niemann points to two major events in the past three years: his 2014 marriage to longtime girlfriend Morgan Petek, a Nashville nurse practitioner, and his change in record labels.

“Lyrically, these songs are deeper than the previous records, just because I’m married now,” he says, “and there’s another layer of the onion that I would like everybody to see that maybe you didn’t even know existed or that just matured over the last couple of years.”

Frazer Harrison/Getty

A one-time Sony artist, Niemann says his signing in 2016 to the more “boutique” Curb Records has also contributed to a new sense of creative freedom.

“I’ve had so many people tell me what to do for the last few years,” the Kansas native says. “So it was such a fresh breath of air to go over to [Curb Group chairman] Mike Curb’s house and hear him say, ‘Well, what do you want to do? What’s your vision? What are you thinking?’”

Though he first made a name for himself as a songwriter, Niemann admits his overwhelming impulse was to set aside his writer’s cap. Instead, he channeled his energies into other aspects of music making: finding songs that “hit me right in the heart,” figuring out how to interpret them, and co-producing them in the studio.

“The songwriter in me, I guess, kind of took a little miniature hiatus, and the singer in me has been totally inspired by these songs,” he says. “They’re fun to sing. They’re also allowing me to challenge myself vocally and as a producer and musician. I think it’s just kind of a fun change-up.”

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The album has attracted a who’s who of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Josh Osborne, Craig Wiseman, Natalie Hemby and Ashley Gorley. Fellow artists Michael Ray and Chris Janson also contributed. And Niemann lured best buddy Lee Brice into the studio to record a duet, the irresistibly breezy “A Little More Love.”

The two actually recorded the song not only on the same day, but also on the same microphone – a virtually prehistoric practice, given today’s technology.

“We sang together so much for so many years, acoustic shows and stuff,” Niemann explains. “We wanted to just try to capture that moment, like we would if we were singing it live.”

In the end, the album-making process ended up reinvigorating Niemann’s own songwriting, and two of the 13 cuts are his own co-writes.

“My songwriting side – that little thing inside of me – was ready to write again,” he says. “Some of these guys who’ve written these [album] songs, we’ve written [together] since. … I’ve made some new friends. … I’m foolish to even talk about future projects, but I’ve already had more ideas for down the road. I feel like I’m back in my own lane.”

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