It took a while, but JT Lewis finally conquered the person who was holding him back from a full-time music career.
Since committing full time to the business, his career has been a whirlwind – highlighted by a partnership with two of Nashville’s biggest music industry names which led to an EP that has touched his fans and brought him into the spotlight.
Before that, though, the Baton Rouge native had to get the all the voices in his head all on board with the notion.
“When I started college, I knew I wanted to do something in music,” JT said. “But, I had this thing in my head that I needed to do something in business; I needed to have a career. And, I had this negative thing in my head – maybe playing music – maybe I couldn’t make a living at it. I guess that was kind of the enemy getting in me.”
Even with the thought that performing might not be the way to put food on the table, JT continued to dabble with it while a student at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“I still wrote and sang a little bit,” he said. “And, right after college (in 2012), I tried moving to Nashville with this idea in my head I was going to get a job. I came up here with a bunch of buddies who were in a Christian band, and I would play with them.”
After that, it didn’t take long for the music bug to bite JT for good.
“One day I was sitting on my buddy’s bed – because then I didn’t have a bed up here,” he laughed. “I figured that my calling was to be an artist and continue writing and be a better writer. So I called up Mr. Scott Lynch who had been my mentor for a couple of years in college, and I said, ‘Hey, Mr. Scott, man, I want to be a country music artist.’ And, right off the bat he just went with me and said, ‘We’ll make it happen.’”
Lynch, president of Scott Lynch and Company Music Group, is a Nashville music publisher and songwriter.
“So we got to talking,” JT explained. “I started writing with him and my producer Billy Aerts.
When it came to financing the project, JT’s Cajun independent streak showed up. “When I started making the plan for it, I wanted to be the one to fund It. I didn’t want to have to crowd-fund it. I didn’t want to be pitched to labels. I wanted to own all my management.”
He continued, “So I decided to move home; and, I worked 80 hours a week for 2 years, then I finally moved back here last January. So I’ve been here a year and a half, constantly improving my writing. I’ve been writing somewhere between three and six days a week, one to three writes a day, and starting to tour more. And ever since I’ve gotten here a year and a half ago, it’s been the sky’s the limit.”
The first tangible aspect of his work is his EP, “Shoot Straight,” which was released in April and is available for streaming on iTunes.
Reaction to the record has been “awesome,” JT said. “I get texts and Snapchats, people listening to it, and it just makes my day.”
The EP contains four songs. “I wanted to do something that was short enough to be digestible, and also financially to make sure there was money left over for marketing and touring.”
For the title track and two other cuts, he teamed up with both Lynch and Aerts. He co-wrote “Jumping in the Deep End” with Lynch alone.
“It was really awesome to finally see it manifested,” JT said. “I’ll never forget the first time I heard the mixes. I was at Billy’s, and he had it playing in this studio room where I cut all the vocals; and, just hearing the tracks without my voice was so fulfilling after I had (spent) two years of just working.”
The song closest to his heart is “Shoot Straight,” he explained, “because of a message that my grandfather instilled in me in a conversation we had 2 years ago. And, I live by it: ‘Whatever you do, do it the best you can.’ That’s pretty much what he said.”
Fan reaction has validated the song’s message for JT. “Somebody from Louisiana sent me a Facebook message just the other day saying, ‘Man I listen to that song every day. Me and my wife listen to it, and it’s changed my life.’ That’s why I do what I do. And, getting messages like that is great, and playing it live, man, people weep instantly. It’s a cool thing that it touches people.”
Connecting with fans is a big part of JT’s brand. “I got a video somebody sent me the other day. This little girl – she can’t be more than 5 years old – made a video of herself singing “Anchor Me in the Sun.” And it was the coolest thing. This little girl, she was super excited. So I grabbed my phone, and I did a little thing for her. I said, ‘Hey girl, I saw your video and I love your voice, and I wanted to make you a video too.’”
A Tale of Two Journeys
JT’s journey to Nashville, however, pales by comparison to his ancestors’ journey to America more than 45 years ago.
“On my grandfather’s side, his family owned a big bottling company in Cuba,” JT said. “And, grandmother’s side, they were big farmers. My great grandfather was a big rancher and had, I think it was, 40,000 head of cattle. Both sides of the family were very well off, and because of that I guess they were somewhat politically influential.”
He continued, “This is kind of how I understand it. When (Fidel) Castro’s revolution was really starting to make headway in Cuba, my great grandfather – in public – made some negative remarks about Castro. So, word of that gets around. He’s got a bounty out on his head.”
This situation forced the family to try and flee the country.
“When they were trying to get out of the airport,” JT said, “They had pretty much packed up everything in suitcases and carry-on bags — and they were going through the airport, and (Castro’s people) knew what my great grandfather looked like, and my family made a pact: if he gets caught they keep going — my grandmother and my great aunt — all the rest of the family keeps going.
“When somebody recognized my great grandfather, and he ended up giving this guy a very substantial bribe to let them get through, so they ended up all making it.”
JT said, “They had nothing at this point. Everything was taken – the ranch, all their companies, and a beach home. So they came over with nothing. But my grandfather always walked his tail off. He started a construction company in Louisiana and it became the family business. They made an awesome life for themselves. But it would not have manifested itself had he not been such a hard worker.”
Music is JT’s passion, but he loves to talk about his enthusiasm for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. And, he has found a way to combine that with a desire to help others.
“I have a lot of hunting trips planned but not necessarily for me,” he explained. “I’ve been hunting and hanging around with (professional bowhunter and world champion archer) Ms. Joella Bates. She’s been teaching me a thing or two, giving me some lessons. She’s lining up a big youth hunt in November where each youth hunter gets a celebrity mentor. And, I get to be one of those celebrity mentors. And, I’m like, Yeah, whatever kid I get, we’re going to kill the biggest buck,’” he laughed.
“And, then I’ll be pretty busy trying to stay involved with groups like Trinity Disabled Adventures. It’s a Christian-based group that takes disabled kids and adults in the outdoors for hunts and fishing trips. I got into doing that a couple of years ago, and it just changed my outlook on the outdoors because I’ve hunted and fished my whole life.
“I think there was 1 or 2 years where I literally hunted or fished almost every day for a year. And, then I went to this thing and… I asked someone if he had been hunting a lot that year and he said, ‘Yeah.” I said, ‘How many hunts have you been able to go on this year?’ And, he said, “Three.” And I looked real deep into myself. I was like, ‘I’ve been hunting almost every day, and this guy thought three was a lot,’ and that just changed it. It just changed the playing field. I want to do everything I can to help these guys get out there and go, whether it’s playing for a fundraiser or going out and being there.
“It’s easy to take it for granted when you do it all the time.”
JT is working on putting together a tour for later in the year. If you don’t see him on stage, you just might see him in the woods. But regardless of what he’s doing, you can bet he will be putting 100 percent into it.
Watch “Jumping Off the Deep End”
Next week, JT answers our questions.