COOKEVILLE – A decade ago, Cookeville’s Judah Akers couldn’t play a guitar, but these days he’s making a career in music – songwriting, recording and performing as lead vocalist and guitarist with the folk band, Judah and the Lion.
A self-described “jock,” Akers’ interest in music began when he was benched by an injury during his freshman year at Cookeville High School. His uncle, Paul Ramsey, pastor at Church on the Hill in Cookeville, suggested he take advantage of misfortune and learn to play guitar.
“I was really bad at first,” Akers said with a laugh. “Almost as soon as my uncle started teaching me the guitar, I started writing songs.”
Akers soon formed a youth worship band at his church, and before long the band was performing during the main service.
“You might as well jump in the deep end or not swim at all, “Akers said, crediting the support of his church and community with giving him confidence to pursue music as a career.
In 2013, Akers earned his degree in music business from Belmont University. That’s where he teamed up with mandolinist Brian Macdonald and banjo player Nate Zuercher, with whom he formed Judah and the Lion in 2011. Akers said he was looking for someone to play his songs on a banjo when an exploratory session was arranged with Zuercher, who brought Macdonald along.
“We met for lunch and started playing the songs,” Akers recalled. “After the second song we knew we had something special.”
A few months later, the newly formed trio won Belmont’s 2012 Christian Showcase competition, a Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business initiative designed to expose Belmont students to the operations of full-scale concert production. By June 2012, the trio had recorded their first EP, “First Fruits,” written by Akers but expressing the group’s spirituality. The band gained notoriety and experienced commercial success with the 2013 EP, “Sweet Tennessee,” which peaked at No. 25 on the iTunes album charts and appeared briefly in the No. 1 spot on the singer-songwriter iTunes charts.
“A lot of doors opened, and we went fulltime this January,” Akers said. Their first national tour began in February playing with Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. “We play a lot of college campuses or college town venues. Playing for big crowds is amazing.”
Like many young musical artists, Judah and the Lion is taking a non-traditional route into the music industry. The band has a manager but has not signed with a record label.
“We are independent…we believe we can organically spread the music through social media and self- promotion,” Akers said. “Our target demographic is high school age through early 30s, but we’ve found that we appeal to people of all ages. We think it’s the banjo and mandolin that gets their attention.”
At an April performance in Nashville, the older demographic was well represented by Akers’ Cookeville-area supporters and friends of his parents, Britt and Susannah Akers. The closest Judah and the Lion will be to the Upper Cumberland in upcoming months is the Moon River Music Festival in Memphis June 7, but fans can listen anytime at www.judahandthelion.com.
Akers noted that although the band’s music began exclusively as Christian, the group’s newer offerings are more Americana or folk but “out of that same heart.” All three band members are dedicated Christians, and Akers pointed out that the video for “Sweet Tennessee” illustrated their belief that people can have a good time in a simple, clean manner.
“Like with our shows,” he said. “We like for them to be a party, but that does not mean you have to get drunk to enjoy the music.”
Judah and the Lion have recorded 10 new, original songs for an album set for summer release.
“We want to keep [the fans] coming back,” Akers said. “New markets. New music. We want to make an impact.”
Judah Akers is lead vocalist and guitarist for Judah and the Lion. For more information, visit www.judahandthelion.com.