Jonathan Sexton emerges with "Big Love"

The Knoxville artist brings big, new music out of his self-imposed exile

A couple of years ago, right after his former band Whiskey Scars broke up, Jonathan Sexton took a break from music—a long break. He moved into a lonely, isolated spot in South Knoxville and went back to graduate school.

"It was over a year," he says. "And for the biggest part of that I didn't even play guitar. I had too much other stuff on me. I couldn't be as indulgent as I wanted to be so I didn't do it at all. Part of me thought at the time that I could never top what I did with Whiskey Scars. I didn't want to just rip off what we'd been doing, but I didn't know who I was and what I wanted to do. I had to live and find out what I had to say."

After finishing grad school, Sexton started working as a kindergarten teacher at a school in East Knox County. The start of a new chapter in his life freed him from the burdens of past associations and encouraged him to start playing and writing again. When he finally picked up his guitar after the long layoff, he took an entirely new direction than he'd followed as one-third of the songwriting team for Whiskey Scars. That band, featuring former Dixie Dirt frontwoman Kat Brock and local scene veterans Tom Pryor, Jamie Cook, and Matt Urmy, practiced a disheveled and sardonic version of classic folk and country. Sexton's first solo album, Big Love, released in the summer of 2008, is an expansive, open-hearted folk-rock disc, disarming for its positive, upbeat vibes and the orchestrated harmonies of an eight-part backing vocal group known as the Big Love Community Choir.

Sexton's already working on an as-yet-untitled follow-up record—it'll be out "when I can afford it," Sexton says—that sheds some of Big Love's uplifting spirit but expands Sexton's interest in big vocal harmonies. The demo recordings, made with drummer Dave Campbell, bassist Niles Haury, guitarist Andrew Sexton, and back-up singers Elodie Lafont and Mandi Lawson, are instrumentally lean, with a focus on elaborate voice arrangements.

"I saw Bon Iver last year and started listening to that album, and heard what you could do with that kind of thing," he says, referring to the Wisconsin singer/songwriter's acclaimed debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. "It's like a big math problem. That started on Big Love, but just two or three songs. But I really felt like that was the direction to go. All the new music is geared in that direction. It's a nice fit."

Sexton and his band have been playing the new songs during their last couple of live appearances and will make them the focus of their performance at SnowDay, a benefit for Beardsley Community Farm. The local public demonstration farm, located in Mechanicsville, grows more than 2,000 pounds of organic produce a year with the help of 500 volunteers and distributes the food to several local charities. SnowDay will feature Sexton and his band, Joseph and His Brothers, Cold Hands, Tommy Bateman and the Thunderthieves, Invisible Giants, the BBC Trio, and ex-Whiskey Scars/current everybodyfields drummer Jamie Cook's new band. It will also offer a soup contest and food provided by locally owned restaurants, as well as a live auction and raffle for gardening tools, kitchenware, gift certificates, and a bicycle provided by Tennessee Valley Bicycles. Admission is just $5, but there's a discount if you show up dressed as a vegetable.

"Ben Epperson, the general manager of Beardsley, has been one of my best friends for years, six or seven years now," Sexton says. "He called and said, ‘I need money for my farm and I want to use local music to raise it. What do I do?' It's a perfect match. Besides the killer lineup, there's the spirit behind it all."