Jace Freeman for The Boot
The skulls on his well-worn cowboy boots are the only slightly ominous hint at a rebel nature in this fun-loving artist. And as he heads toward the car with his publicity rep for the 20-minute ride to the first of many interviews he'll complete before the day ends, he bumps into an old friend. Sony Music Nashville labelmate Josh Thompson also happens to be at the office this morning, so the two stop and exchange a quick hello and a hug before Jerrod jets off.
First stop is the home of Hazel Smith, where Jerrod is on deck as the guest for her popular CMT cooking show/movie mash-up, 'Southern Fried Flicks.' A beloved Music City media figure for 40 years, Hazel is as warm as a Southern hug, so when Jerrod walks through the door, the two immediately talk like old friends, even though they've just met. They quickly determine they have mutual buddies in common, which sets the tone for the informal chat/TV taping that will take place inside the small kitchen for the next hour.
"A couple of my friends told me to tell you hello," Jerrod tells Hazel, as they make their way down the hall and through the maze of tech guys and makeup and hair people scrambling to ready the set for the upcoming show. "Lee Brice and Jamey Johnson ... we've all been running around the honky-tonks and causing trouble together for almost a decade."
Hazel's eyes light up with excitement as she says, "Oh, I love those boys! You weren't there when Randy wrote 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,' were you?" She's referring, of course, to the night Randy Houser, Jamey and Dallas Davidson penned the huge Trace Adkins hit.
"Unfortunately I wasn't," says Jerrod. "That was when we were all hanging out, though. It was when [Randy], Dallas and Jamey were together at the Wildhorse [Saloon in Nashville], and I was like, 'Of all the times I've wasted my time with you guys and you've wasted your time out with me, the one night I wasn't there, you write that song!' [laughs]"
"Oh, that was such a great story they told me," recalls Hazel, laughing. "They said that woman's butt would go one way like this, and then the other way would go like this! They swore it, but you know, they drink! [laughs] So I'm not sure. But I've had Jamey out here, and Lee Brice has been out here, and I just love them boys. Jamey came out here and everybody told me, 'Oh, he's gonna be awful,' and no nicer or sweeter man on earth has ever been in my kitchen! He's the nicest, sweetest boy!"
Jace Freeman for The Boot
After Jerrod's shirt gets a quick pressing, the two settle in behind the counter in Hazel's kitchen over some chicken enchiladas and George Strait's Spanish rice recipe, telling stories and chatting about Jerrod's career, as 14 crew members bustle about. Knowing Hazel's background in the business, Jerrod immediately wants to hear stories about Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and the two chat and keep each other laughing as the cameras capture several segments that will make up the show, which airs May 21. On the subject of food, Jerrod admits that although he's not much of a cook, he does have one favorite thing he makes on the grill.
"I need to hang around here more often and learn the tricks of the trade," says Jerrod, asking if he's allowed to know any secret recipes. "My favorite thing to make is I like to take chopped hamburger meat and chop up vegetables or pineapple and stuff it inside it and put them on the grill -- it's delicious," he says as he takes a bite of food for the camera. "My favorite thing to eat is cheeseburgers on the grill. One time, I was at a bar and they had cheeseburgers, and my buddy had one, and I took a bite and said, 'Bring me one of those with seven patties on it!' They did, and I ate all of it! I looked up at one point, and the owner of the bar had fallen asleep on the bar, and I thought, 'Hey that should be me, I'm the one that just ate all of that!'"
Wrapping up the taping, Jerrod hugs Hazel and heads back to the car, stopping again at the record label for a planned quick lunch break, which he ultimately never stops to take. We grab him for a quick chat before a phone interview with a radio station and his next round of interviews.
The Kansas native, who's written songs with everyone from Garth Brooks and Dean Dillon to buddies Lee Brice and Jamey Johnson, struggled for years to get a shot at making his own music. He landed the Garth cuts (he's had three), thanks to buddy Richie Brown, whom he met at college, and those cuts and his other songwriting success no doubt helped fuel his now-skyrocketing career as a recording artist.
"I went to college with Richie, and he told everybody that someday he was going to write with Garth Brooks, and of course after tripping him and taking his lunch money and laughing in his face, he was right," recalls Jerrod, laughing. "But no, Richie is a very talented songwriter and I didn't even know he moved to Nashville. We ran into each other and started writing. Him being as persistent as he is, he got our songs in the hands of Garth. I just figured I could tell my children someday that Garth listened to some of my songs a long time ago, and I was actually satisfied with that! But Garth called us up ... I was actually with my mom and it was caller ID blocked so I thought it was a psycho chick. I answered and it was Garth, and I started swerving the car and scared my mom to death! He invited us out to his house and we wrote 'That Girl Is a Cowboy.'
Jerrod's face lights up as he continues telling the story of his first huge break in a business that his given him his share of tosses and turns. "I totally was starstruck, because not only was it Garth Brooks, but you're in his house at his kitchen table! But in 15 minutes he had removed any nervousness or butterflies, because he just makes you feel so comfortable. For me, it was tough because I had just heard he had listened to 13,000 songs for his new album and hadn't found any he liked. So it was like, 'How about these lines?' [I] had to think twice about throwing out lines. But throughout the years, we stayed in contact and hung out, and in 2005 he called and we wrote a tribute to Chris LeDoux called 'Good Ride, Cowboy.'
Though his songs opened doors when he first got to town, it took some time for Jerrod to find a record deal that would stick. He endured both a development deal with Mercury and a label deal at Category 5, which fell through when the label folded. The emotional roller coaster took a toll on the struggling young artist, who received some good advice from buddy Jamey Johnson, who had endured his own set of struggles before finding success. Jamey encouraged him to pour out his heart with his music and to make a record. Thus, 'Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury' was born -- long before it found a home at the Arista/Sea Gayle label at Sony Music. Jerrod recalls how much fun he had making the album (which went on to debut at No. 1) with no constraints or rules tying him down.
"I didn't have anybody telling me what to do because I already had everything there in the studio. So, most of the fun we had was from midnight to 4:00 AM, just being idiots. And our album is more humorous, like a party, really. Because I thought I was in such a horrible place that the only time I was happy was when I was making that album. I wanted people if they were having a bad day, or month, or year, or whatever it might be, that maybe they can listen to the album and feel a little different just for the time being."
Jace Freeman for The Boot
Jerrod answers yet more questions during a quick call to a country radio station, then heads to a media room to face the corps of radio syndicators for a round-robin interview session. Sitting at the head of a set of corporate tables facing a dozen mics, the singer issues rapid-fire answers to question after question on everything from the Brad Paisley tour he's currently on, to his hero Lefty Frizzell's curly-q phrasing, to his ties to the military, charming the syndicators and cracking them up from time to time with his humorous tales. Mid-sentence, the media moment is interrupted as label head Gary Overton and a line of Sony Music Nashville execs stream into the room and surprise Jerrod with not one, but two plaques commemorating impressive gold certifications for digital sales of his first two singles, 'Lover, Lover' and 'What Do You Want.'
After posing for pictures with the execs and his new plaques, Jerrod is almost at a loss for words as he muses on his success. The gregarious, wisecracking character quietly acknowledges the feat, but can't resist making light of the situation when celebrating his own achievements. "Thank you all very much! I don't know what to say, and I'm rarely speechless! That was really cool! This second one means that either there are a lot of sad people out there, or the iTunes 'buy' button got stuck! But either way I'm very proud of these!"
Wrapping up the interview session/impromptu gold party, Jerrod stores his heavy metal in his car and heads downtown for the final commitment of the day, former Tennessee Titan Kevin Carter's Waiting for Wishes charity event, benefiting his foundation and the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Middle Tennessee. Piling into The Palm restaurant with dozens of other celebrities, including Rascal Flatts' Jay DeMarcus, Big Kenny, Dierks Bentley, and NFL players Keith Bulluck, Sage Rosenfels, and the Titans' Kerry Collins, Jacob Ford, and Marc Mariani, among several other sports celebs, Jerrod is fitted with a crisp, white waiter's jacket and corralled into a room where he gets instructions on the evening's events, which will include a VIP cocktail hour, dinner, and an auction. Minutes later, he is elbow-to-elbow with former and present NFL players, including the New York Jets' Tony Richardson and former Titan Craig Hentrich. The three do a quick interview with GAC before trading some talk around the bar. Tony and Craig offer Jerrod a few of their best tips on waiting tables as the three enjoy the VIP reception and prepare to hustle up tips for the worthy cause.
"My best tip for not dropping a tray on a table? Don't carry 'em!," says Craig, laughing. "It's better to make sure everybody has a drink in their hands at all times -- things generally go better that way."
"We carry wine bottles around all night so we don't have to carry a tray. If you get the drink orders right, the rest of the night goes smoothly!" adds Tony. "This event is always so much fun, and Kevin is one of those guys that does everything he does with passion and enthusiasm and excitement, the same way he plays the game, so I'm excited to be here."
Jace Freeman for The Boot
It's easy to lose Jerrod or anyone else in the sea of massive athletes crammed into the cozy lounge, but a 12-year-old Make-a-Wish child recovering from cancer seems to have no trouble maneuvering among the giants, as he hits up every player in sight to sign his football and pose for pictures. Having waited tables during college, Jerrod seems right at home once the dinner begins, mingling among the tables and chatting with guests as they enjoy their delicious surf-and-turf meal. As a former high school football player himself, the opportunity to meet so many pro football greats at one event is an added bonus to being able to give back to some deserving kids in his adopted hometown at such an event as this.
"I'm so excited to be here, one because The Palm is a great place, but also because it's an amazing charity event," Jerrod tells The Boot. "What's great is I'm just learning about this event as I go by talking to people who've done it before, and I've met some of these guys from the NFL tonight who've done it for eight years. It just shows you how great those guys are to dedicate their time. I'm excited to help raise money for the foundation, but also to meet a lot of these players. I grew up playing football, and also being a fan, so it's pretty cool to see these guys and also to see how big-hearted they are."
After raising much-needed funds to help make a whole new set of wishes come true for critically ill kids, Jerrod retires his waiter's coat for the evening, says his goodbyes, and heads for home.
In just one day, he's cooked up something tasty onscreen, made dozens of new friends, been acknowledged by his label for selling a million of his songs, been interviewed by a dozen journalists, and helped make it possible for countless children to realize their dreams ... Not a bad day for a guy who at one point was just happy to be able to say that Garth Brooks had listened to a couple of his songs.
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