Getting in tune.
Exposed brick walls and paint-splattered wooden pillars divide the drafty room save for a small open space in the center.
One by one people enter through the heavy metal doors and begin to unpack their oddly-shaped belongings: a mandolin, a cello, a banjo, an upright bass.
The mandolin player starts plucking an Irish jig while striding around the room and someone drags an electric blue drum set out from a back closet.
The banjo and cello players join the tuning mix as the band starts to form a circle in the middle of the room.
The door swings open once again.
In walks a guy wearing a Steve Miller Band shirt with the kind of brown unruly hair that has been know to make girls swoon.
He has the flustered look of someone who has been running from one place to another all day yet he seems happy to be ending it here. He picks up his guitar and starts strumming, adding to the growing din of tuning and excited chatter.
“It’s great when people actually like listening to the things you’re pouring yourself into,” said Judah Akers, 22.
Akers is the lead singer of the Americana-folk band Judah & the Lion that has quickly gained popularity among Belmont students and is rapidly expanding its fan base in the short year-and-a-half of its existence.
Judah & the Lion is a literal dream come true for Akers, a senior music business major who came to Belmont to play baseball but was writing worship songs on the side.
“All I saw was a tom drum, a mandolin and a stand up bass…instruments I wasn’t accustomed to at that point,” he said, describing the details of a dream he had before the band existed.
Akers had the songs and the vision. The search for the band began.
“I called him off-the-cuff,” said Akers. “I knew him because he had the beard.”
Nate Zuercher, 21, is the banjo player for Judah & the Lion and sports a grizzly beard that would make the cast of Duck Dynasty jealous.
“He asked me if I knew any mandolin players so I called Brian,” said Zuercher.
Brian Macdonald, 20, is a sophomore commercial music major and instantly sensed the band’s chemistry.
“You could tell there was something there right off the bat,” he said.
After the trio grabbed lunch in the cafeteria and played a few of Akers’ songs in the Bell Tower—what would become the band’s regular practice spot—the future front man knew he had a band.
“The song came alive for the first time,” Akers said. “From that point on I could tell there was something special.”
The music builds.
The noise of instruments and chatter instantly dies down as Akers leads the band in a prayer thanking God for the opportunity they have to create and share their music.
With the word “amen,” Akers strums the opening chord on his guitar and the band instantly falls into the rhythm of the song.
Akers’ solo voice rings out with a haunting echo.
“Sweet Tennessee,” he sings out slowly and deliberately as the twang of the banjo and the rumble of the cello build the melody.
Soon Akers is stomping, rattling the wooden floor of the tiny room, and the band tightens the circle, eyes closed, lost in the soaring chorus.
Meeting their goals.
It’s Judah & the Lion’s first practice before the Best of the Best Showcase. Last September the band won the Christian Showcase in rocking fashion, ending its set with an unexpected drum break that got the whole band involved.
This time around Judah & the Lion boasts an even bigger sound and is sticking close to its Americana-folk roots.
For its newest EP, the band is going for quality.
“We need to raise over $10,000 for us to do it like we want to do it,” said Akers, referring to the band’s decision to create a Kickstarter project with a deadline of only 15 days.
Kickstarter is a website that allows anyone to propose a project, set a fundraising goal and create incentives for the backers who donate. If the project doesn’t meet its goal in the allotted timeline, all the money is returned to the backers.
For Judah & the Lion, raising $10,000 only took 26 hours.
“I got a call at 11:30 that night saying we pretty much met our goal,” said Akers.
A $5000 pledge by someone who had just stumbled across the band’s Kickstarter page and the motivation from the creative backer incentives—ranging from a copy of the band’s new EP to a day at Percy Priest lake and a songwriting session with the band— added to the rapid fundraising success.
“Going to Percy Priest and jumping off cliffs is going to be awesome,” said Akers.
For Zuercher, the Kickstarter incentives are a way to get closer to the band’s fans, who now span across the U.S. with heavy concentrations in Nashville, L.A. and Chicago.
“We’ve seen support from people who genuinely just like the music and don’t know us but believe in what we’re doing,” said Zuercher.
After the band met its $10,000 goal, the campaign continued for two more weeks with support from fans. At the end of the fundraiser, the band had an additional $2,000.
In the final hour of the fundraiser, a woman came across the page and donated $250—a pledge that came with the incentive of having the band write her a personal song.
According to Macdonald, the woman wrote the band a message about her husband who was terminally ill. She wanted Judah & the Lion to write a song about their love story.
“We’re excited to get to write a song for her and her husband,” said Akers. “Hopefully it will encourage and help them.”
Already, the band is seeing its influence reach beyond the simple worship songs that characterized its debut six-song EP, “First Fruits.”
“I don’t feel like this is a band that’s called to sing church songs in a church to church people,” says Akers, clarifying that he and the band still love these opportunities and will continue to take advantage of them as they come.
“It’s about taking it outside church walls and going into places that maybe other people look down upon.”
Akers senses a deeper purpose for Judah & the Lion.
“We want to be able to connect with people on a real level, on a Jesus level, and on any level and place they’re at in their life.”
The band hopes its new EP, “Sweet Tennessee,” set to release in mid-April will allow them to do just this.
“This is going to be something that goes a lot further than we ever expected,” said Zuercher, of his vision for the band.
“We’ve fallen in love with it,” said Akers.
“She won’t give up,” Akers holds the last word in an arching solo crescendo and the rest of the band comes in on the downbeat.
The music cuts out and Zuercher starts in on a complex banjo scale, Macdonald following the pattern on the mandolin and the drums building beneath them.
The two finish the complicated round and the whole band comes in again, Akers stomping on alternating feet, the rest of the band jumping up and down until the room is shaking.
The last hit reverberates throughout the room.
A pause…then the band breaks into smiles and excited whispers.
Judah & the Lion is ready for the showcase.
The road ahead.
Akers sits back in his chair and thinks carefully about the question.
After all, declaring your hopes and dreams for a band that has already achieved so much in a year’s time isn’t easy.
“Our hope and our joy doesn’t come from this even though it brings us a lot of joy,” Akers says, referring to the band’s deeply rooted beliefs.
Even so, Akers can’t hide the hopes he has for Judah & the Lion.
“We want to come back in 15 years and say we’ve done it and we loved it.”