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Beat ‘n’ Track: Judah and the Lion

A history of sports led to a future in music for senior Judah Akers, who is now the lead singer and guitarist of the Christian band Judah & the Lion. Although the trio of Akers, Nate Zuercher, and Brian MacDonald have spent less than a year together, they have already made their mark on the Belmont community after winning the 2012 Christian Showcase. That performance may have been their first as a group, but it certainly is not their last.

Belmont Vision: What sparked your interest in music?

Judah Akers: I grew up in Cookeville, Tenn., mostly just playing sports my whole life. I thought that was where my life was going to take me; like Tim Tebow. I wasn’t really that good at sports, but of course, that was my dream when I was little. I got a stress fracture in my back my freshman year of high school, and that’s when my uncle taught me how to play guitar. I hadn’t played any music up until that point. After that, the Lord just completely changed my desires and dreams from baseball and basketball to music and worship. The Lord has completely changed my life. I thought I had more of a desire for sports, which I still do, but music is actually what I have felt called to do. I’m a sports man gone music.

BV: When you were learning to play the guitar, what about music sparked your interest?

JA: I’ve always had a heart for the Lord. I always thought I was going to use sports as a platform to bring Him glory, but after I started to pick up the guitar, things changed. I was really bad at first, but I just loved it. My uncle who taught me is the pastor of our church back home and he got me involved in starting a worship band there. I could barely play and sing at the same time, but people were just so encouraging even in those worst states. The Lord gave me a vision during one of those worship services for this very organic-style music and that’s when it became something more than what I loved to do, and more of something I was called to do.

BV: What brought you to Belmont?

JA: I’d always been drawn to Belmont and the Nashville scene even as a young high-schooler. Belmont always appealed to me. I really liked the basketball team, I thought I was going to play basketball here, but after I was recruited by the baseball team, I prayed about it and felt the Lord was calling me here to Nashville, regardless of why I was going to Belmont. It’s been a dream come true, everything has been just so awesome. I love Belmont.

BV: You are not a typical musician. You are both a collegiate athlete as well as an artist. How do you find time to balance these two very committed aspects of your life?

JA: It’s definitely hard. My baseball coach, Coach [Dave] Jarvis, has been really awesome about understanding what all is on my plate. My band has been the same way. And then balancing school is also really important. My grades have probably taken a little bit of a hit but that’s OK. Everyone is willing to understand how full my schedule is, but everyone else has a pretty busy schedule too. However, I don’t think I’ve ever felt too overwhelmed by any of it. I feel it’s just about balancing it all; if the Lord has called you to it, than He’s given you grace for it too.

BV: What is your favorite aspect of music?

JA: Just the way it moves me. There is just a way the Lord and the Holy Spirit can move through music like nothing else. God inhabits the praises of His people through worship and I’m not sure if it says that anywhere else in the Bible. Literally when we worship or play music, it’s bringing God glory. His presence is there and it’s very apparent. That’s my favorite aspect of music, being able to embrace the presence of the Lord and think creatively to find new ways to do that. It’s so real and tangible. It’s challenging and amazing.

BV: Who are your musical influences?

JA: I would say, NEEDTOBREATHE, Bethel Worship Bryan and Kate Torwalt from the Christian side and from the folk side, Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. But I love Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and some of the oldies.

BV: So how do those bands play out in the style of Judah & the Lion?

JA: Instrumentally we sound like Mumford & Sons and that is an obvious association because there is a heavy banjo sound, but we are just very organic and raw. It’s been awesome to work with music majors. Every other member of the band is a music major. Nate is a banjo major, one of the only ones at Belmont. Ryan is a mandolin major, one of the only ones at Belmont. We are very original and I am the only music business major here at Belmont…just kidding. But although I also consider myself a musician, my band mates are brilliant in their craft. I am able to do the songwriting and the singing, but they think so creatively, putting different things together. Some of their rhetoric, I don’t even understand it sometimes. It all just kind of works together and compliments each other to make that organic and raw sound.

BV: How did Judah & the Lion come about?

JA: Last year, I had some songs that I was wanting to record, and I really wanted to create a band that was my sound; a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin. I figured, I’m at Belmont, there has to be people here who played those instruments. So I started asking around, and I wasn’t even looking for a Christian guy specifically, just someone who could play that was good. I knew Nate because he had the big, old beard. I knew his beard on campus. So I called him and said, ‘Dude, I love your beard. Would you like to meet up with me and play banjo for some of my songs?’ He said he would, and he also would bring his friend who played mandolin. So we met up and went and played in the bell tower. They told me they first thought I was a stereotypical baseball player, thinking that I wasn’t going to be any good. But as we started playing that first song, it just felt right. That was last December and we’ve been playing together ever since. We actually recorded an EP in June 2012 when I had a week off from baseball and a whole day in the studio. We are writing a lot right now and hoping to do a full 10- or 12-song album soon. We are kind of wanting a different vision for this next one with not only worship songs but some songs maybe just about life.

BV: So Judah & the Lion. Where did that name come from?

JA: We talked about names for so long. The band was originally just going to be Judah. Like Bon Jovi, but just call the band Judah, even though that’s my name. We tried it, but it ended up just being weird. When I was introducing the band, they wanted me to introduce myself too so I would say, ‘We are Judah, and I am Judah,’ and it wasn’t working at all. Obviously lion of the Tribe of Judah comes from the Bible, and Judah in the Bible is Hebrew and it means Jehovah’s praise. That kind of comes out in our music and we just all loved the concept of what the lion symbolizes: authority, courage, strength and boldness. So we just made it somewhat original and switched it around to Judah & the Lion. The lion has also always been my favorite animal since Judah has always been tagged with the lion.

BV: You just named off numerous characteristics of the lion which you all really liked. Do all of you bring those characteristics to the band?

JA: Well, I would say Nate’s beard definitely does. Ryan’s hair does a little bit too. Honestly, we want our music to have authority of the Holy Spirit and bring a sense of passion and strength to people. We want to worship the Lord and bring him glory but we also want to do it with this authority that he’s given us. I pray our music does that.

BV: What is the best advice you have received throughout your musical endeavors?

JA: The best advice we have gotten was from our manager’s uncle, stay true to ourselves. I feel with music, people want to make you out to be something, but the most important thing in this industry is just staying true to yourself and what God has called you to do with your music. I don’t want to play music that doesn’t move me, because then that would just be pointless.

BV: Let’s talk about the showcase. Tell me about that experience for Judah & the Lion.

JA: It was so fun. It was the first show we ever played period. We had all played before in front of people but as a group, it was our first gig. We weren’t really counting on getting into the showcase this fall. We actually were working on getting some shows lined up around Nashville, but now I think the showcase sets a good launching pad for that just because it’s such a big deal and a lot of students come to it. It’s an amazing production and that whole week was just amazing. The lights, the stage, the plot, everything just ran so smoothly. I kind of felt like a super star. The testimonies and hearing about people being touched by the Lord afterwards through our music was just incredible too.

BV: With school, music, and baseball, you have a pretty full plate. Do you have time for any other hobbies or anything that you like to do outside of those bigger commitments?

JA: This is going to sound so cliché, but I love hanging out in coffee shops. I love just hanging out, watching “The Office” with my boys, going to the lake, we go to a lot of UT football games back home, and just getting away and hanging out with friends. Music is always going to be a part of that, but I love the chillness of just doing nothing; laying down looking at the stars kind of stuff, just not doing nothing.

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