“Friend of a friend” is the way it all came together, three very different people from very different places, united by a shared love of music. As a band, Judah & the Lion owes much to fate and to the small town feel of Nashville, the city that brought the trio together from scattered parts of the country. The three met while attending Belmont University in the city, introduced to each other through music and mutual friends.
“We all had similar stories, despite the fact that we’d grown up in different places,” explains mandolin player Brian Macdonald, “Judah is the Southerner, I’m the Chicago city slicker, and Nate is the laidback, bearded Rocky Mountain guy.”
One listen and you can hear the influence of each of their youths. Judah Akers in his Tennessee hometown, listening to the soulful crackle of Ray Charles records, Nate Zuercher, a Colorado kid into rugged rock’n’roll, Macdonald driving through the suburbs of Chicago, blasting everything from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel.
Somehow, all these sounds have come together in Judah & the Lion – the old school sincerity of Southern gospel and soul, the energy of rock and the time-tested pop of classics and hits from the past. And through it all, there is the sound too – of their shared obsession, the feverishly nostalgic twang of bluegrass, country and traditional folk music.
Judah & the Lion is a modern pop band with a feel as old as hills and holler, Akers’ topical lyricism matched with the familiar feel traditional instrumentation – mandolin, banjo and the kind of vocal harmonies that make the heart ache.
“We’re all very different people but it has been obvious since the day we met that we should make music together,” says banjo-player Nate Zuercher, “Though we’re different, we have similar philosophies as to what is important in life and that is a huge part of what keeps us going strong. We know it is important to enjoy where you’re at, to love the people you’re with and live a bold and passionate life. That looks different for each of us but allows us to relate and understand each other.”
“We met because Judah was asking around about a banjo player,” remembers Macdonald, “Nate played banjo and I was just starting to move from guitar to mandolin, so we both went to meet up with Judah and we just connected on a personal level.”
The three played together soon after that initial meeting and “we connected right off the bat,” remembers Macdonald. “It wasn’t like Judah had said he wanted to start a band. He had some songs and he wanted to hear what they sounded like with a banjo. But when we played, it felt right and it sounded good. And we just knew we’d keep playing together.”
That playing together resulted in two successful EPs, First Fruits and Sweet Tennessee. The latter blasted onto the Billboard charts, hitting the Top 20 in a variety of genres – No. 2 on “Bluegrass,” No. 9 on “Heatseekers” and No. 15 on “Folk.” Sweet Tennessee also made it to #1 on iTunes “Singer/Songwriter” chart and broke into the Top 25 overall albums chart. The band has hit the road repeatedly in support of both releases, making the cross-country trek for extensive national tours and playing to sold-out crowds throughout the South and (of course!) in their Nashville hometown.
Whether you’ve heard the band play live or merely listened to those first two releases, you can feel the growing connection between the trio, a musical bond of true and deeply felt emotion. Judah & the Lion possess a resonance beyond their years and a sincerity of feeling that comes in part from childhoods spent performing at youth groups and at Sunday worship.
And while their debut EP was a collection of worship songs, the tracks on their full-length album are inspired by a wide variety of themes, narratives eloquently reflecting the trio’s continually evolving lives… and sound.
Recorded March of 2014, Kids These Days embraces the band’s folk trio roots and expands from there, banjo/mandolin/harmony forming a sonic backbone that incorporates everything from keyboards to electric bass into a heady mix of old and new instrumentation.
“We really wanted this record to show really where we are in our lives now,” explains Akers, “We wanted people to be able to dance to these songs and have a freshness about them that made them lasting. Honestly, we just love life and love people and hope that comes through.”
On Kids These Days, the band explores a new range of emotional territory, writing about love and fear and joy and all the nuanced spaces in-between. The songs on this album are about past and future, adventure and family, confusion and hope – a collection of stories about being young, about finding your way, while discovering – yourself.
“This record is filled with energy and a youthful spirit that absolutely encompasses our circumstances,” say Zuercher of the album’s expansive, high energy feel, “We don’t have much but we’ve got a whole lot of life and passion for what we do and who we are and we hope that people can grab a hold of that when they hear this record. It has been awesome to be able to move forward and utilize some new sounds but we still feel like this record is US.”
In the end, Judah & the Lion has become the happy sum of disparate parts, Southern grit, Midwestern openness, the exuberant freedom of the West, all brought together to make a truly joyful noise.