By Kelly Baughman
Jonathan Newton may have been standing in the background in the past, but his raw talent on the guitar and in front of the mic has made him a talented front man that is captivating audiences all over the Gulf Coast.
Born and raised in Montana, Newton said he was drawn to music as far back as he can remember. Part of a musical family that formed a classic country band that consisted of his mother, father, and brother, Newton was playing the piano by the age of four.
“I took lessons and found that I could really see the way the music was laid out on the piano. It helped me learn a lot about the way the notes worked in my head,” Newton said.
Learning to understand chords and different keys of music allowed him to move on to play other instruments. “When I was seven, someone gave my dad a mandolin and I found a book of chords and just picked it up one day. Within a few days I was playing songs with three or four chords in them along with the band, and before too long, I was up there playing along with them for hours,” he said.
At the age of eight, Newton picked up the guitar and said, “It was like a light bulb went off. This was where I felt comfortable.” And while he continued to primarily work on his guitar skills, by the age of twelve, Newton was proficient in six different instruments, and was taking trips to Nashville with his dad and brother to check out the music scene and play wherever possible.
At the age of 18, Newton took the leap and moved to Nashville to pursue his music dreams. There, he spent the next decade recording, playing on stage, and producing with some of the best on the Nashville scene. “I’ve played with so many people that you’ve heard of, but I don’t like to name drop. But I will say the day I got to take the stage at the Ryman with Kris Kristofferson was one for the books. I shook his hand and stood there floored,” Newton said.
Always a fan of the pioneers in country music, or as he calls them “the old school” artists, Newton recalls a day when he and a fellow musician were playing on a Nashville rooftop and covered the Johnny Cash and June Carter classic, ‘Jackson’. A few minutes later, they were approached by a woman who said, “I’ve heard people do my dad’s song a hundred times, but you drew me in here to listen.” That woman was Johnny Cash’s daughter, Cindy.
“I never got to meet Johnny, but meeting his daughter and hearing her praise for our version was very meaningful,” Newton said.
After a decade of living in Nashville, Newton said the magic and romance of what Nashville used to represent to him had faded, and he had grown restless in the Music City. “The industry had changed. It wasn’t really about the music anymore. Producers would get a successful artist and album, then instead of trying to find something else new, they found artist that could duplicate that sound. Great artists with tremendous talent were being signed and shelved while the industry continued to pump out the same sound over and over. You can hear that in country radio today,” he said.
Unwilling to sell out to sell records, Newton headed to the Gulf Coast. “Originally, I moved to New Orleans. I wanted to go to a place with rich music culture. I ended up playing in a rock band seven nights a week, believe it or not. But after about six months, I realized it wasn’t for me,” Newton recalled.
Newton said that while previously touring with Crystal Shawanda, he had played the Flora-Bama a few times while passing through. “I had been to the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival and we had played a gig or two there, and I realized what a supportive music community this was. I got offered to come over and play a gig with Jason Justice, and I never left,” Newton said.
Now, Newton’s music card is full, playing gigs as a guitarists for many of his fellow musician friends, fronting the JoJo Pres band with Preston Stanfill and Derek Jones, and producing music with Nick Biebricher in the studio at Sandy Roots Productions.
But when it comes to the stage, Newton had reservations about leaving the supporting role of guitarist to step in front of the mic.
“I’ve really had to learn how to be a front man. I’ve always been more comfortable with my guitar off to the side. I still get nervous in front of the mic. As the front man, you are the nerve between the band and the audience. You have to make that connection between the two to make it a good show. Being a comedian and Mr. Personality isn’t my thing, so I’ve had to work hard to learn how to lead the audience and the band,” he said.
Newton must be doing something right. His band JoJo Press is one of the most sought after three piece bands on the coast, and Newton attributes that to the chemistry he has with his bandmates. “Usually with a three piece band, you’ll get an acoustic show, but with Preston and Derek being such strong musicians and me being used to lead guitar, we are able to provide a full band experience. We mesh well together and know how to play off one another,” Newton said.
Newton is also making a name for himself in the studio, working with Stanfill and others to create his own sound. “I’m working on my album right now, and just finished my first single called ‘Coffee & Cocaine’. It has an outlaw country vibe, and the second I heard it (written by Nick Biebricher and Michael Peterson), I knew I had to record it,” he said.
In addition to working on his own music in the studio, Newton and Biebricher have become a dynamic production team recording albums and tracks for artists from all over the country in their Sandy Roots Productions studio. “Nick runs the studio, handles all of the scheduling, and the day to day issues. He’s got a great ear for music, and is able to pinpoint the little things the artist might not hear. I’m the guy who comes in and lays down tracks and fine tunes the vocals and the instruments. What he lacks, I have, and what I lack, he has. We complement each other well in that way,” Newton said.
With so much already under his belt musically, Newton continues to push himself in new directions. By learning to harness the energy of the artist he produces in the studio, he has learned to harness his own energy to blossom into the front man he is becoming known for. A self-proclaimed “open book” who appreciates the simple things, Newton said music is his life.
And thanks to Newton’s music, life here on the coast is good.