Like country music stars, there is no such thing as an overnight success.
Jonny Hill, who is president of Igniter Productions, the promoter of the first Lynchburg Music Fest set for Aug. 23-24, 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.”
Besides Igniter, he 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, although 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.
“I love Lynchburg. Lynchburg is always going to be my home base.”
Sometimes you’re not appreciated in your hometown, or you’re looked upon as the little kid they remember growing up.
Maybe they remember him as an athlete – football, basketball, baseball – at Moore County High School, or as the youngster voted “Best All-Around” – he lost by two votes of being Mr. Moore County High School to twin brother Judd. And a top-notch student, ranking in the top 10 of his graduating class of 2008, and was in the first group of students to be in the dual enrollment program with Motlow State.
He went on to Tennessee Tech and earned a degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in business, taking classes every summer at Motlow as well. He put himself through school – through his mowing business and working for UPS. He didn’t take out the first loan. He left Cookeville debt-free. So, yeah, a great young man clearly with a lot on the ball.
But, seriously, can little Jonny stage perhaps the biggest event in Lynchburg this side of the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue?
Talk with him for even a few minutes and you know he can. His passion is palpable. His fire burns like the mythological Phoenix that’s part of the Igniter logo.
Two weeks before graduation from TTU, he was hired by Nissan as a process engineer. He worked in similar roles at Goodman and General Motors. All really good gigs, but time-demanding and stressful.
“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.
On his second day at Nissan, he 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.”
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.”
Always writing songs when he could while at GM, he 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, her uncle was a record producer. She invited him to a party that weekend. There, he met the producer – and 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.
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.
He finished up a major project at GM on a Friday and was teaching at MCHS on Monday morning. He went from consulting and working on projects with legendary GM CEO Mary Barra to teaching youngsters who didn’t know and maybe didn’t even care who he was.
A culture shock to be sure at first, but it gave him the time to transition to music and also give back to the community he loved, and all those years of education and five-year career in engineering wasn’t going to waste.
Hill isn’t one to stand still or play it safe. If there’s an opportunity swinging by, he grabs on, when his intuition — or something bigger — tells him it’s the thing to do.
Sometimes it’s not. He turned down the GM promotion; along the way, amazingly, he turned down a song publishing deal that he felt wasn’t fair.
While teaching, the place where he works out, Harvey’s Gym in Tullahoma, becomes available. Tre Stewart, who Hill met just while working out, approached him about going in together, and Hill brought Liles in, too, and it was soon a done deal.
Then Hill launched Lynchburg Radio. He saw it as another strategic move to make Lynchburg a music town.
All of a sudden he had the same income he’d had coming in – a passive stream of revenue, he calls it – with the time to work on music opportunities through Igniter and without the drive to Spring Hill.
The Lynchburg Music Fest – with stars like Easton Corbin, Jamey Johnson, Joe Diffie, David Lee Murphy, Montgomery Gentry, among others on the bill, will be huge for Lynchburg. It’s 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?