When the Vols opened their season against Austin Peay, the atmosphere was ripe with hope and new beginnings. And while the Vols were bringing a morale-boosting win to UT, a Nashville band was uniting fans with their homegrown single "Sweet Tennessee."
The title track of Americana-folk band Judah & the Lion's recently released EP was played for the 97,169-strong Neyland Stadium crowd over a video honoring Johnny Majors.
Tonight, Judah & the Lion will return to Knoxville in person with a show at Remedy Coffee in the Old City at 7 p.m.
The band, led by lead singer Judah Akers, mandolinist Brian Macdonald and banjo player Nate Zuercher, met through a mutual friend while the three were students at Belmont University in 2011.
"I'd written some songs that I had never recorded and really wanted to. I didn't even really want to start a band necessarily; I just wanted to hear these songs with a banjo and a mandolin," Akers, a May 2013 Belmont graduate, said. "We met up for lunch and really connected on a relational level. We went and played through some songs in the bell tower at Belmont, and I still remember playing the first song with them.
"It was a chemistry that we couldn't deny, and we ended up making a band."
Both Zuercher and Macdonald come from a highly musical upbringing – Zuercher's parents play in the symphony in his hometown of Colorado Springs, and Macdonald's older siblings took piano and drum lessons that led him to learn piano and guitar at an early age.
Akers, however, was not interested in playing music until a baseball injury during his freshman year gave him the time to learn the guitar.
"I kinda grew up as a jock; I played sports and that's kind of all I did," Akers said. "(My injury) ended up being one of the best things that's ever happened to me. My uncle taught me to play guitar, and I started writing songs. I started a youth worship band at my church, and I wanted to pursue worship music and leading worship."
Macdonald and Zuercher also have roots playing in youth worship bands, an experience Macdonald is grateful for.
"When I started in church and eventually led worship in church, the encouragement I got from that community even when I thought I sounded really bad, that really is what pushed me to keep going," Macdonald said. "That's kind of how I started, and it just quickly became a passion of mine."
The group's first EP, "First Fruits," was released in 2012 and its overt Christian references are evidence of the members' church upbringing. Now, more than a year later, Judah & the Lion have evolved into the more lyrically subtle and folk-sounding "Sweet Tennessee," which was released in May of this year.
"We're so happy with how the first EP turned out," Macdonald, "but as we've been kind of playing together and making our vision and how we want people to view us, we kind of came to the conclusion that we will reach more people that we would not if we called ourselves a Christian band.
"From our hearts, the goal is just to write music that we want to write about, whether it's about God or if it's about life or love or struggles and really be honest with that."
The "Sweet Tennessee" EP brought Judah & The Lion notoriety and success the band hadn't previously experienced. Peaking at No. 25 on the iTunes album charts and knocking Ed Sheeran briefly out of the No. 1 spot on the singer-songwriter iTunes charts, the album's blend of Southern folk and genuine lyricism proved popular.
Recently, Judah & the Lion opened for Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors at the band's Nashville show at the Cannery Ballroom.
For Zuercher, the show was "a dream come true."
"For one, that was cool to have so many people you love singing with you because it's your hometown," Zuercher said. "And the honor of getting asked to play a show like that by an artist that we all love and had seen before. Then they invited us up on stage for an acoustic unplugged thing for their last song. They were so kind to us, and they just really took care of us."
The band is now in the pre-production stage of recording their new album and hopes to release their first full-length record in 2014.
"We're ecstatic about getting new music out there and it couldn't come soon enough," Macdonald said. "We have a lot of fans that can't wait to hear it, and we can't wait to just share with whoever wants to listen.
"This full-length is going to be our really big coming out and a big way we want to represent ourselves so that we have hopefully a lot of new fans."
Judah & the Lion will be playing several new songs at their Remedy show tonight, and Akers, Macdonald and Zuercher are looking forward to interacting with the Knoxville community.
"We haven't played Knoxville since January," Zuercher said. "Nashville definitely is our home, but when I think of 'Sweet Tennessee,' I think of Knoxville."
The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are $5 at the door.