It’s midday on a Monday afternoon, and Jack Greene Park is deceptively empty save for one man, sprinting across the stage.
He pauses at the top of the stairs and gazes wide-eyed at the expanse of green grass, empty except for an occasional walker circling the Greenbelt. It is an oasis of calm in the middle of downtown Maryville, but in his head, he hears the screams of thousands of fans, and in his eyes you can see the wheels turning.
He will own them all. Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Foothills Fall Festival, Reba may be the headliner, and up-and-coming country acts Steel Magnolia and The Band Perry may go on after him. But come 3:45 p.m., he will have that crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
“Boy, I’m gonna be all over this stage!” he says, taking a practice run from the spot where the drums will likely be to the edge, hands clutching an invisible microphone, eyes a blaze of intensity. “The funk is coming straight at them, and it ain’t gonna be nothing nice. It’s gonna be high energy, and those people better be ready.”
Foothills Fall Festival organizers pride themselves on offering something for everyone, but this year’s lineup may be its most diverse yet — as well as the one throwing the biggest curve ball at fans. The classic rock headliner has been moved to Sunday night and will be preceded by hardcore local country bands Southbound and The Drunk Uncles, among others. Friday night, local rockers Jonathan Sexton and the Big Love Choir and Oh No Fiasco will get the crowd primed for country star Sara Evans. And Saturday, Jaystorm is one of the outside-the-box performers who go on before Reba and her tourmates.
It’s something different, to be sure. But Jaystorm — born J.J. Sarden in Greeneville — is nothing if not up for a challenge. He’s hustled and muscled his way to one of the most in-demand performers in the local music scene, and the way he sees it, performing for a sold-out crowd at the Foothills Fall Festival elevates his status even further. It hasn’t been an easy path, but then the way of the local troubadour never is.
He was 9 years old when he first became aware of music’s power, he said. His brother used to listen to a lot of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, sounds that gave him a funky foundation he still builds his music upon today. Growing up in Greeneville, he found himself surrounded by the classic rock sounds of bands like Foreigner and AC/DC as well, and he soaked those up, too.
“I started lip-syncing, pretending I was a star, about the fourth or fifth grade,” he said. “I was up every morning with a comb in my hand, reciting Prince’s whole album ‘1999.’ I’ve always envisioned wanting to be a star.”
Attending Union College in Kentucky, he entered a lip-syncing contest one night, and the effect was electrifying, he added.
“It was like a huge deal — I got on that stage, man, and those people were cheering even though I wasn’t singing one note,” he said. “The feeling that gave me was amazing.”
Deciding the feeling was worth walking through the fear of having others hear his voice, he started writing and reciting his own rhymes, and in 1991, as part of the group PD-6, he cut his first studio product at Underground Studios in Kodak. PD-6 made a name for itself as a local hip-hop unit, opening shows for 95 South and Blessid Union of Souls, before the members decided to go there separate ways.
“It got to where I could go right or left; left was the safe way, going back to school and starting a family and getting a 9-to-5,” Jaystorm said. “Me, I went right — but I kept my 9-to-5.”
He went to college and obtained his accounting degree; his education in the music business was largely a process of trial and error. With PD-6, he learned the ins and outs of booking shows, managing a music career and securing financial backing. In 2002, Jaystorm, the entertainer, was born.
At first, he tried to do shows to pre-recorded music tracks. He quickly learned that’s a dead end, no matter how lyrically witty or awe-inspiring his rhymes might me.
“There’s no money involved in that,” he said. “I found out it was difficult to do shows to tracks and do more than five shows in a year. The only way to do it is to sell your CDs. I figured out I had no choice but to do live music, because I saw that the people playing live were playing out all the time.”
He gained some exposure opening for such hip-hop artists as Mystikal, Coolio, Petey Pablo and Sir Mix-A-Lot, but for the longest time he never connected with live performances. Friends would take him to see bands, and boredom would set in shortly after his arrival. Local singer-songwriter Dave Landeo helped change his band, along with the band Skinny Little White Girl.
“They used to let me get up and rap, and I just did my rhymes over their beats,” he said. “Every time they’d play out, I would try to be there to get on stage, and the nights I couldn’t get up there, I was very disappointed. The same thing happened with Dave Landeo, and it just made me realize more and more that I needed my own band.”
And Landeo’s suggestion, Jaystorm put one together — a four-piece featuring two brothers (Aram and Sevan Takvoryan) with a wealth of experience playing all manner of styles, and Landeo on drums. After a brief interlude as a member of a local supergroup called Dead Star Prophecies in 2003, the band was reborn as the Jaystorm Project, and suddenly the muscular black guy with hypnotic rhymes, a singing voice from some lost Motown demo and rock ‘n’ roll swagger for miles found himself with a city to conquer.
“I really got a lot of notice then, and it just grew,” he said. “David got busy, so Kenneth (Brown, son of local jazz legend Donald Brown) started playing drums, and we grew around that. We’ve had band members come and go, but I’ve had this entity, Jaystorm, going strong. It’s all about the vision. My vision is the big picture, and every time I turn around, we’re one step closer.”
It hasn’t been easy. He’s put out two albums on his own, 2004’s “Let’s Do This” and “A Brand New Funk,” an EP released last year. His most recent video, “Get Wit’ Cha,” was entirely self-financed; he sold one of his cars to make it happen. Now, the video has gotten airplay at bars around the Southeast; he gets random texts from friends in cities like Atlanta, where they tell him they’re sitting in this bar or that club and watching his video play on the big screen. After its release, his friendship requests on Facebook maxed out at 5,000, and he’s pushing people toward “liking” the band’s page. He’s got a solid band and a deep bench from which to draw upon if his main players have a conflict; he’s looking at pushing outward beyond East Tennessee to bring the funk to the Southeast at large.
It’s a good time to be in Jaystorm’s orbit, as fans at next weekend’s Foothills Fall Festival will find out for themselves.
“Right when one door closes, another one opens — I don’t care what your situation is; that’s true,” he said. “In this business, you’ve got to overturn every stone. It’s tiring, the effort it takes to turn over every stone and see if something’s there, but you’ve got to do it, because you’ll never know until you turn it over.
“Some people believe I’ve got to move to Nashville or Atlanta, but no — I’m not going anywhere. This is my home base, and I’m just working on conquering everything around me. It’s like a ripple effect — it starts here, but it goes out like a rock into water.”