Before Judah & the Lion became the hip-hop-spiced success it is now, the genre-mashing Nashville trio was a folky worship band. Annoyed about being labeled the “Christian” Mumford & Sons, Judah & the Lion chose to evolve.
“I was really frustrated with that,” banjo player Nate Zuercher said of being pigeonholed, “because it felt like everyone was going to know exactly what we would do. Like we’d just be a less-good version of Mumford & Sons.”
Of course, the music business is always looking for the next big thing. Earlier in this decade, Judah & the Lion fit the profile for being the next Lumineers or Mumford & Sons. “We were approached with deals that potentially would mold us into something we didn’t want to be,” Zuercher said.
But Zuercher, Brian Macdonald and singer-guitarist Judah Akers refused to conform. Instead, they took the time and space they needed to develop their own sound and identity. “We played hundreds of shows,” Zuercher recalled. “That truly allowed us to see what works and what connects with people.”
During Judah & the Lion’s hundreds of hours on the road, each member of the trio played DJ while they were driving the band’s van. The variety of music they heard during the road trips influenced the band’s musical explorations. Akers, for instance, played rapper 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ album incessantly. Macdonald favored singer-pianist Ben Folds and other keyboard players, including baroque master J.S. Bach.
“I usually had the nightshift,” Zuercher said of the driving. “So, I had to play music that kept me awake—electronic and metal music. Which no one really liked, but I was keeping us alive on the road at four in the morning.”
Judah & the Lion formed in 2011 while all three members were attending Belmont University in Nashville. Early on, the band wanted to play folk and bluegrass music. “I don’t think any of us had any idea that we’d end up where we’re at,” Zuercher said. “And we were very open through this entire process—trying new things, being aware of different influences and bringing them to the table.”
Judah & the Lion progressed from folk and bluegrass to folk, bluegrass and pop to the folk, hip-hop and rock heard in the group’s 2016 album, Folk Hop N’ Roll. A song from the album, “Take It All Back,” reached number one on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart.
“It’s just crazy to think about everywhere we’ve been and what we’ve gone through to get here,” Zuercher reflected. “I’m just glad we never stopped. We made our decisions, grew up together and trusted that it’s all good.”
Voodoo Music + Arts Experience
Sunday, October 28