In country music as in life, there is no such thing as an overnight success.
Jonny Hill, who is president of the company (Igniter Productions) promoting the first Lynchburg Music Fest, is himself no overnight business success.
“It takes time to build something. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Hill said.
He is just 29 years old, but he’s packed a lot into those years. He’s got a lot of irons in the fire, but he likes it that way.
“I don’t sleep a lot, I don’t watch TV. This stuff is my life.”
In addition to Igniter, Hill is owner or part-owner of Lynchburg Radio and Tullahoma’s Flex-Up Fitness – often teaming with business partner Marshall Liles. And he’s a songwriter. Truly, though music has been his passion for a long time - ever since he won a second-grade talent show singing George Strait’s “Carrying Your Love With Me,” - there’s one word that better suits him: entrepreneur.
Igniter is in just its fifth year of operation, but well on its way to being a full-service music entity – song publishing, song-pitching, record producing, A&R, promotion – you name it.
Everything he’s done, he’s done with a bigger vision. “I’m a big-picture guy.”
Hill was born in Winchester but his family bought a farm and moved to Lynchburg when he was 2. His father, David, had grown up on a farm. Hill said his dad always loved Lynchburg and thought the farming life would infuse his three sons with a solid work-ethic, discipline, persistence.
“My dad was a very smart man had a lot of wisdom. He wasn’t the best at managing finances, but that was his only shortfall. He was a good man. Intelligent and hard working. When we were kids he’d say, ‘Son, don’t confuse all this movement with progress.’”
That stuck with him. Flailing around doesn’t mean you’re moving forward.
As Hill was on the brink of graduation from Tennessee Tech, he was hired by Nissan as a process engineer. Later, he worked in similar roles at Goodman and General Motors. All really good gigs, but time-demanding and stressful.
Very early in his engineering career, Hill had a revelation.
“I was looking around the room at all the gentlemen that had been there, had some time in, saw the gray hairs and the missing hair on some of them and the look of stress and distraught on everybody’s faces and I said I don’t want to do this forever. At that moment I decided I’m going to do this for five years, save as much money as I possibly can, and I’m out. And that’s exactly what I did. I was five years, two weeks and three days later, I was out.”
Always writing songs when he could while at GM, Hill was scribbling in his notebook during a meeting when a senior manager spied him. “You’re writing a song,” she said with a smile. He sheepishly confessed maybe he was.
Unbeknownst to him, the senior manager’s uncle was a record producer. She invited him to a party that weekend. There, he met the producer – and country singers Jason Aldean and Jon Pardi. The first of his major music connections with Nashville were made that night.
“That changed my life. That was where my entry to music really began. I went from being an engineer to ‘I’m doing the music thing.’”
Fired up, he knew it was time to leave the workaday world behind. GM offered him a promotion. He turned it down. He had his eye on that bigger picture.
Some people are born with a drive to make every day count. Maybe Hill was. But a few life-changing events have played a part too.
“So many times in my life something bigger than me has stepped in, and I’m grateful I’ve had enough insights to know those signs.
“I lost my dad at 46. I lost my half-sister at 33, both to cancer. Then, my only uncle I’ve got living, he got diagnosed with cancer. That’s both sides of the family. I thought, ‘Hell, I’m not going to live forever.’ I started realizing I’ve got all this money and it’s not meaning anything really. You’re not guaranteed forever.”
Planning an exit strategy to start working on his music career full time, Hill took a job with Moore County Schools to start a pilot program in megatronics, the result of another chance meeting with MCS board member Jammie Cashion.
During his time teaching, Hill discovered that Harvey’s Gym in Tullahoma – where he works out – had become available for purchase. He was approached by a fellow patron, Tre Stewart, about going in together to buy the business and, after bringing Liles into the fold, the deal was done.
Then Hill launched Lynchburg Radio, which he saw as another strategic move to make Lynchburg a music town.
Soon, he had “a passive stream of revenue” coming in and the time to work on music opportunities through Igniter.
The Lynchburg Music Fest – set for Aug. 23-24 with stars like Easton Corbin, Jamey Johnson, Joe Diffie, David Lee Murphy, Montgomery Gentry among others on the bill – will be huge for Lynchburg. But it’s also huge for Hill; he wants to give back to his hometown and make it something special.
“I want it to be an annual event. Not get bigger, get better and better. Become like a pilgrimage.”
But it might not be the biggest thing Jonny Hill does in his lifetime.
“The Lynchburg Music Fest, as important as it is to me to be a success, is not the be-all, end-all.
“Success to everybody is different. You have to determine what your success is. My vision of success is all about one day Igniter is going to be a very big entity in music. Much more than putting on a concert in Lynchburg. Much more than the “Shine On” series at the Lynchburg Winery … it’s publishing, it’s A&R, it’s producing, it’s recording. As long as there is a breath in my body, it won’t stop.
“Being passionate about something you’re doing is you have to love the process. Loving the process is why I hit my destination.”
And who knows where that final destination may be?