Local boys in the Jeff Jopling Band keep chasing after the dream
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When Jeff Jopling left Maryville College for the bright lights and big city of Nashville, few familiar with the scope of his talent thought they’d see him back home in Blount County as anything more than a visitor.
Fate had other plans, though. Jopling’s father died, and he decided to leave Music City — where he was performing with rising country star Troy Olsen — and return to help run his family’s Townsend farm. At the time, he committed to a year helping his mother get back on her feet ... and now that year is almost up.
If he does return — and certainly that’s the goal, even if nothing concrete is in the works right now — then he’ll do so with a band that carries his name. It’s a fully realized vision of what Jopling believes is needed to succeed in country music these days.
“We’ve got a ton of original songs, and I’d like to look at a publishing deal,” Jopling told The Daily Times this week. “Everybody’s in full bore, and we want to take it as far as we can. I’d like to see us do some showcases in Nashville and eventually go all the way.”
The 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 with Olsen.
(Ironically, he returned to Blount County for a performance with Olsen as part of the “WIVK Live” concert — broadcast at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the very same college campus from which he’d graduated.)
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.
He didn’t get out of music, however. And when he met musician Austin Stepp through the friend of a friend, the two hit it off and started talking about playing together. Stepp, who graduated from Heritage in 2004, received an email from the guy he’d met in a bar the next day.
“It was from Jeff and said, ‘These are all the songs we’re going to be doing,’ and there were 60 songs on there,” Stepp said. “I’m an Old Time fiddle player from ETSU, so it was a strange thing for me to learn 60 country songs in a week.”
At the first practice, another musician whom Jopling had tapped to play lead guitar never showed up. Jopling, who wanted to put together a contemporary country outfit and begrudgingly brought Stepp in to beef up the traditional sound, immediately assigned Stepp to the guitar.
The group started playing around town, mostly at Confused Bar and Grill on East Lamar Alexander Parkway, where the group’s keyboard player and rhythm guitarist, Aaron Kirby, joined. By that point, Daniel Cromwell — the singer for local punk band So To Speak — was on board as the drummer, and another mutual friend arranged for Jopling and Kirby to meet.
“We went down there, and this guy is hounding Jeff and hounding Jeff to let me get up and sing,” Kirby said with a chuckle. “I could tell Jeff didn’t really want to do it, but he finally said OK. After we were done, he told me I had pretty good vocals, and when I told him I could play piano, that got him right there.”
Versatility is the key, Jopling said — with a degree in classical piano, a short career playing bass and the ability to play any number of instruments, he prides himself on the members’ abilities to switch up instrumentation. With the exception of Cromwell, everyone switches up on occasion, and with Kirby’s ability to sing high harmony, the ingredients are in place for a band that has fun and makes fun but takes care of business as well.
“We run it like a business,” he said. “In developing the band, I wanted to make sure the band is diverse. We all play multiple things, so it’s a very natural thing to be in a country-rock band with this group of people. We don’t do very much old country — we’ll do some Johnny Cash or some Waylon occasionally — but most of the time, we do new country.
“That’s what sets us apart. I get a chart every week, and I’ll pick songs that are low on the charts and rising. We were doing ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ (by Jason Aldean) months before it was even released as a single. We try to stay one step ahead of the originals.”