Family man: Jonathan Sexton recalls his Blount roots on the eve of the Foothills Fall Festival
By Steve Wildsmith | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Jonathan Sexton takes the stage at this year’s Foothills Fall Festival with his band, the Big Love Choir, he hopes that two people who have passed from this life will be looking down and smiling.
Bill and Mary Sexton, the singer’s grandparents, lived most of their lives in Blount County. In fact, his people trace their local roots back to the Great Depression, when his great-grandfather lost his job at the Marble Hill rock quarry in Knoxville and came to work at the quarry in Friendsville, now owned by Vulcan Materials Co.
His father, Andrew — one of the guitar players in the Big Love Choir — raised his son in Sevier County, but his residence in Knoxville and his ties to Blount make Sexton a son of East Tennessee more than any one specific place. But Maryville has long held a special place in his heart, and when he and his band go on before Sara Evans on Friday, Oct. 7, he has no doubt that all of his Blount ancestors will be out there, somewhere, watching fondly.
“I know they’ll be watching,” Sexton said recently over lunch at Bread of Heaven in Alcoa. “I really wish they could have lived to see this, because they were always so supportive of my music. I just didn’t have the bandwidth then to accomplish what I have since they died. But before my grandmother died, she got to hear what I was doing with (now defunct honky-tonk band) Whiskey Scars, and she said, ‘Honey, I’m just so glad you found your niche.’
“It’s real important for anyone to find a sense of their roots. The stronger the roots go down, the stronger the tree. I know my grandparents are always around me, and there’s a real sense of magic being able to play the festival.”
Sexton was 8 years old when his parents divorced, and for the first several years of his life, Bill and Mary lived in Kingston, where Bill found work. After moving back to Blount County, they settled in the Windridge subdivision, near Sandy Springs. One of his earliest memories of coming to Maryville for a visit is one of perplexity, he said with a laugh.
“My grandmother didn’t like the house they moved to, so they moved three houses down,” he said. “I came back to visit, and they’d moved to a different house! I was so confused.”
His stepmom was a softball player, and he remembers end-of-season tournaments at Sandy Springs Park, where young Jonathan was in awe of the playground — “the World Series of playgrounds,” he thought of it back then. As he grew older and got his driver’s license, his visits to Blount became more frequent, and he found himself hungry to learn more about his family’s past. After Mary died, Bill’s health began to decline, and Jonathan spent a lot of his time taking care of his grandfather.
“That was such a priceless thing, getting close to him like that,” he said. “I remember going to buy him chocolate peanuts at Horn of Plenty. And I always thought he was a recluse, but everybody knew him by name whenever we’d go places. It blew me away, and I think it reflects on the kind of community that Maryville is.
“Almost as much as I took care of him, nothing would lift him up more than the greeter lady at Walmart, or the teenage waitress at Gondolier. That time allowed me to get to know my grandfather as a young man, to hear stories of girlfriends he had before my grandmother and how our family got here.”
Upbeat, passionate rock
What he discovered were family traits that serve him well today — jovial personalities, a healthy sense of humor and a tender spirit that shines through in the upbeat, passionate rock ‘n’ roll he makes with the Big Love Choir. As a local musician, he cut his teeth in such bands as Oversoul, the Redhouse Project and Whiskey Scars. It wasn’t until he struck out as a solo artist, however, that he took a step out on faith and began writing emotionally searing, heartfelt material.
He’s not a hippie, per se, but he believes as such. Peace, love, compassion, helping out his fellow man ... those aren’t just mantras used to garner good press or slogans he throws about with thoughtless ease. They’re true, real feelings from within, and when he talks about being of service to others in whatever way he can, he means it.
After releasing the albums “Big Love” in 2008 and “New Day” in 2009, Sexton and his bandmates recently released a four-song EP that’s shipped to radio stations in 300 cities and more than 400 online retailers. Although he still lives in East Tennessee — with his fiancee (and bandmate), Elodie Lafont, and his son, Athen — the Big Love Choir has relocated its base of operations to Nashville, where industry connections have helped him forge strong music management and business ties.
He and the band recently released a video for one of the EP’s songs, “Babylon,” and he’s constantly on the road between the two cities. He’s hoping to nail down a wedding date, and of course, raising Athen is always a joyful challenge.
And somewhere between tours and showcases to promote the new EP, he’s going to find time to make it to the Sexton family reunion in Friendsville — rescheduled for Oct. 29 so the family can come see him at the Foothills Fall Festival.
“It’s been a long road to get where we’re at, and it’s taken a while to do what we’ve done, but I’ve stopped worrying about getting there,” he said. “As long as my needs are met, it’s about the journey, not the destination.”