EYES ON THE PRIZE: The Jeff Jopling Band looks beyond Blount for bigger things
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Townsend boy Jeff Jopling knows a thing or two about sacrifice.
He’s given up a lot to advance his music career, and he’s prepared to give up a lot more. It hasn’t always been easy, and on occasion it’s called for sacrifice that would have given many other artists pause, but Jopling isn’t like other artists.
He’s played the game in Nashville and given it up to return to East Tennessee. He’s started over from scratch, putting together a band that carries his name with painstaking precision. And with the help of the guys who have faith in his vision, he’s preparing to once again grasp for that brass ring.
Only this time, he’s doing it on his terms.
“From what I’ve seen and what I believe wholeheartedly, you have to be at a certain level of singing and playing, but after that point, it’s not so much about how good you are, and not even necessarily so much about who you know, but about what you’re willing to sacrifice,” Jopling told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “Are you able to take a pounding until you’re in the right place at the right time? I know it’s there, and I know it can be done. I’ve seen it and done it, and I don’t think it’s an unattainable thing.
“I’ve lost many girlfriends and many good relationships to pursue this. I was in Nashville when my dad died; I buried him, and then I had to get on a bus and go on tour for three months. My family was always really supportive of me, and my dad would have had me doing anything else, but when I sit back and think about all the things I’ve done ... about how my dad never got to see this band or hear what we’ve done ... sometimes it’s heartbreaking.
“But I really do know he would want me to be doing this,” he added. “I feel like I’ve done it the right way, and I don’t have any real regrets.”
That brass ring has always been on Jopling’s radar, ever since he was a music standout at Heritage High School. Back then, he became the first person to be awarded the All State classification in both the band and the choir, a feat that earned him local media attention and helped earn him a spot in Maryville College’s classical music program. He’s a versatile performer, able to play piano and keyboard, upright bass, electric bass, a little bit of guitar and the entire clarinet family — clarinet, bass clarinet and the contrabass.
In college, he was a part of the local country band Dalton Road, and he played bass guitar as part of the house band at Reflections Theatre in Pigeon Forge. He parlayed that into a gig in Nashville after graduating Maryville College in 2008, playing with a touring “Legends in Concert” show for roughly a year before a gig opened up playing guitar with Troy Olsen.
His connections with the members of the Jeff Jopling Band go back to those days with Olsen and beyond. Keyboard player Jerry Sullivan, the newest member of the JJB, is a childhood friend of Jopling’s; a 1995 graduate of Heritage and the son of Jerry and Jean Sullivan, he and Jopling grew up in the same church, and the first time Jopling sang publicly for the congregation, Sullivan accompanied him on piano. Jeff Jopling Band drummer Daniel Cromwell, a veteran of the pop-punk outfit So To Speak, emailed Jopling before he appeared with Olsen on the “WIVK Live” bill at the Clayton Center for the Arts in early 2010, introducing himself as a fellow musician and Townsend resident.
After Olsen’s hit single “Summer Thing” fell off the charts, however, management gave his band a six-month break, anticipating more work when the next single started to catch fire. Jopling, however, decided to return to Blount County. His father had passed, and he opted to return home to spend time with his mother, April. He didn’t quit music, though, and when mutual friends introduced him to Heritage High (class of 2004) graduate Austin Stepp, the two hit it off.
Recognizing Stepp’s inherent musical talent (he’s an Old Time fiddle player who went through East Tennessee State University’s prestigious bluegrass program), Jopling didn’t so much ask Stepp to join a band but move forward like it was a done deal. The night after they met, Jopling sent Stepp a list of 60 songs to learn, and the Jeff Jopling Band was on its way.
Jopling’s determination to make things happen his way is a driving force behind the degree of local success the band has earned. He’s a force of nature when he sets his sights on a goal, his bandmates say. He serves as equal parts circus ringmaster, Marine Corps drill sergeant and honky-tonk bandleader, and with him out front to clear the way for the rest of the guys, the long climb toward the top has been interesting, to say the least.
“That’s the kind of drive Jeff has,” said Sullivan, who replaced original keyboard player Aaron Kirby and balances late nights with Sunday church services at Green Meadow United Methodist. “He’s been out there before, and he’s aiming to get back. And when he aims to do something, it gets done.”
“My experience with Jeff is that when he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Stepp added. “I’ve always been that way as well, so I appreciate that sort of drive. All of us here have put our heads together, but Jeff has made it easy. You can’t hit a target you can’t see, but Jeff’s been good at painting that target.”
Jopling drives his boys hard, but he also tries to lighten the load as much as possible.
“During the week, I spend every single night on the computer trying to book shows, or I’m on the phone talking to people,” Jopling said. “I need them to come to rehearsal and to come play shows, but I try to ask them to make as little a sacrifice as possible as they can at this point. They all have lives and jobs, and we’re not making enough money right now to demand, ‘Quit your job and come do this full time.’”
That time may not be far off, though. Through connections here at home and in Nashville, Jopling hooked up with Jeff King, a fellow Townsend boy and the son of a friend of his late father’s. King, a Nashville studio and road veteran who plays with Reba, took Jopling around Nashville, introducing him to studio executives and session players, and was instrumental in getting the band into EMI Nashville studios, where the group recently cut two high-quality demos of “Storm” and “Here’s to You.”
Add to that Jopling’s recent publishing deal, and the band is firmly on the radar of a growing East Tennessee fanbase and people in the industry over in Music City. The plan, the guys say, is to follow East Tennessee country breakout artist Kenny Chesney and raise funds for a nationwide campaign themselves. And they’re confident that they have the material to win over fans on a national scale, if they’re successful in raising the capital necessary to get their music out there.
“With our original music, it’s really who we are,” said Stepp, the son of Mark and Paulette Stepp. “It really conveys a lot of us individually. And even the music core itself, outside of the vocals, is country — and that’s something that no matter how old you are, you can connect with it if you’re from the South. I didn’t even really like country when we started, but it’s really fun to play.
“I get on the electric guitar and shred, and listen to the lyrics, it touches me. And I look out and see it touching other people. It explains a lot about everyday life.”
Not that they’re consumed with the sentimental side of country. After all, with a tattooed punk rocker like Cromwell — a 2006 graduate of Heritage and the son of Danny and Melissa Cromwell of Townsend — behind the drumkit, it’s hard not to take some crazy chances with the covers the Jeff Jopling Band chooses to do. From the familiar beauty and ache of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” to a mash-up of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” with Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” the guys know how to make a show funky and fun as well.
“Jeff’s philosophy is that you’ve got to sound exactly perfect on an album, but the live shows are for rocking out,” Sullivan said. “The live shows, you just put it out there.”
And that philosophy, the guys hope, will take them places beyond the weekend bar scene around East Tennessee.
“Just having these guys and their devotion and musical talent has really helped a lot,” Jopling said. “I don’t think we have the mentality of a local band. We all have day jobs and do those, but we’re all young enough and unattached enough that when the opportunity comes, we can go.”