When Judah Akers was writing tunes and thinking of starting a band as a student of Belmont University in Nashville, he didn’t know just how much of an effect incorporating a banjo would have on his songs. He also didn’t know that said banjo player, Nate Zuercher, would bring along his buddy Brian MacDonald, who was packing a mandolin.
The classmates and musicians found a rare chemistry and laid the foundation of the sound that would become Judah & the Lion ... almost. Before their first show on campus in 2011, they thought it might be cool to give their rootsy, Americana-inspired pop-rock sound a bit of extra oomph and propulsion, which drummer Spencer Cross was more than willing to provide.
“I think I kind of tried to add my own feel. It kind of immediately just shifts things a little bit,” Cross said. “It was like a first step, too. We want to have this energy to our live show, and I think it’s still there to this day.”
An emphasis on raucously energetic live performances, relentless touring and a genre-blending, and sometimes bending, sound helped Judah & the Lion build a grassroots following. The band self-released two EPs (2012’s “First Fruits” and 2013’s “Sweet Tennessee”) before releasing its debut album, “Kids These Days,” in 2014. The band has always been anchored in energetic folk and Akers’ earnest singing about big themes like faith, fear, love and self-doubt, the scope of the group’s sound has grown with the size of its fan base.
An album feels like a scrapbook or something you can go back and look at and cherish it for what it is, and a live show, you’re free to create whatever every night.
Spencer Cross, Judah & the Lion drummer
“There’s always temptation to do what’s comfortable and do what’s been done before,” Cross said. “We are doing what we want to do in a sense, and push ourselves creatively as much as we can.”
The band’s expanding musical approach might be best exemplified on Judah & the Lion’s latest album, “Folk Hop N’ Roll.” This release is the second time the group has worked with Dave Cobb, one of Nashville’s hottest producers, who has produced albums by Jason Isbell and Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
“Dave is just kind of able to push you. He’s able to push us in a way that no one could at the time,” Cross said. “He’s just so good at capturing the authenticity of the recording, the recording process. He really helped us value that, because we are a generation that has grown up with ‘perfect’ music.”
The rough-around-the-edges final product of “Folk Hop N’ Roll” also incorporates musical elements that help the album live up to its eclectic name, whether it was incorporating drum machines and reverb-soaked vocals or running the banjo through an amp. The knack for an affecting ballad or soaring chorus hasn’t changed, but they manage to uncharacteristically channel a bit of a Beastie Boys-type aesthetic on the track “Reputation.”
“I’m sure it’s something some people listen to and say, ‘What? Who is this? What did you all do with Judah & the Lion?’” Cross said of “Reputation.” “I think that was something where we would have never done that four years ago. Just feeling the freedom from each other and allowing us to share ideas and share influences and pushing each other to go for it.”
Cross said “Folk Hop N’ Roll” was not only a deep dive into experimentation based on their respective and eclectic influences; it also was an attempt to finally capture the energy of the band’s live show as a permanent studio document. As the band plans its next set of road dates, including a stop at the Moontower Music Festival in Lexington, the emphasis on creating a memorable live show for fans continues to be a motivating and musically inspiring mission.
“An album feels like a scrapbook or something you can go back and look at and cherish it for what it is, and a live show, you’re free to create whatever every night,” Cross said. “I think we will continue to take our set to the next level.”
Blake Hannon: email@example.com.