Chartbreaker: Judah & the Lion Talk Their Surprise Chart Hit & Opening for Twenty One Pilots

Austin Hargrave
Judah & The Lion’s Spencer Cross, Akers, Brian Macdonald and Nate Zuercher photographed Jan. 12 at Footsie’s in Los Angeles.

Chartbreaker is Billboard's new monthly series spotlighting an artist making their introduction to the charts.

“It’s a weird feeling for us,” says Judah Akers, lead singer and principal songwriter for Judah and the Lion, describing his experience of seeing one of his songs grace a Billboard chart. “Take It All Back,” the folk-rock foursome’s rollicking single, currently sits at No.1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, and has peaked at No. 10 at Hot Rock Songs following its release last summer. Cooked up in a shed off Music Row, the unlikely smash hit -- all mandolin, banjo, driving percussion and raging chorus -- has catapulted the band toward the mainstream.

“I never really thought radio would embrace us the way they have,” Akers admits. “It’s been a wild journey.”

Judah and the Lion almost never happened: when the members first met as students at Belmont University in 2011, Akers was focused on a budding baseball career. Then, a casual lunch between acquaintances turned into a jam session with his future band mates.

“Something really clicked with us,” mandolin player Brian MacDonald recalls of the group’s bonding over bluegrass, hip-hop and riff-based modern rock. Akers and drummer Spencer Cross are both born-and-bred Tennesseans; MacDonald is a Chicago-area native who cites Kendrick Lamar and the Beatles as influences; and Nate Zuercher is a self-declared mountain man from Colorado. “We all grew up with totally different family lives,” MacDonald adds. “Our vision as a whole, and what we really dream of, is to reach and bring together a really diverse group of people.”

Following a pair of releases that led to moderate touring success, Judah and the Lion conjured a runaway hit in 2016. “Take It All Back” sits at No. 1 at Alternative Songs for the fourth straight week; in less than a year, the song has notched 8 million streams on Spotify, and the official music video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube. “The industry is excited that this kind of [music], that for sure isn’t in any box, can be embraced by a lot of people,” says Jacqueline Saturn, GM of Caroline, the Independent Services division of Capitol Music Group, who released Folk Hop N Roll last March.

Following the release of their debut EP, 2013’s Sweet Tennessee, and the following year’s debut full-length, Kids These Days, “Take It All Back” became a staple in the band’s live set. When recording last year's Folk Hop N Roll, it was a no-brainer to include the call-and-response rocker on the track list. The band used an iPhone recording of a Nashville crowd singing the song back to Akers on the studio version. “We just wanted to capture that energy and live feel that we experience at our shows with our fans,” Cross explains.

Saturn cites frequent spins on SiriusXM’s Alt-Nation and Alt 98.7 in Los Angeles as important to the song’s growth, and specifically recalls stellar shows at South By Southwest last March, as well as an iHeartRadio summit for program directors last August, as critical turning points for “Take It All Back.” “They tore it up,” she says of the latter show. “Standing ovation. It’s very hard to do that in the daytime, and especially when you’re with programmers. The energy was like a forcefield. We made so many fans that day.”

As the band happily reveals, it won’t be long before fans get a taste of new music. They recently logged time in the studio and, as Akers says with a smirk, they’ll be releasing “raw and inspired” new songs “sooner than a lot of people think,” after supporting Folk Hop N Roll on tour for much of 2016. “Getting in the studio is really inspiring for us, because we’ve been on the road a lot,” he adds.

For now, the chart dominance of “Take It All Back” couldn’t have come at a better time: Judah and the Lion will be spending the winter opening for Twenty One Pilots on their North American arena run. Akers, who first saw the “Stressed Out” duo play at a Bonnaroo side stage four years ago, hopes that they guide Judah and the Lion toward greater success.

“In a lot of ways, we really respect what they’ve been able to do,” he says. “The way they’ve gone about getting all their fans and starting out with an amazing live show and touring a crap-ton and winning people over at festivals. … We’re looking forward to learning from them, and being able to experience their live show and get inspired each night. Obviously, the exposure for us is something we’ll forever be grateful for.”

Watch Judah and the Lion talk about their celebrity crushes, favorite foods and explain why people should listen to them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 28 issue of Billboard.