Until recently, guitarist/vocalist/bandleader Jason Eskridge’s primary focus during any given week would be “Sunday Night Soul,” the vehicle for local, regional, and national performers he’s helped make a Music City staple for over six years. Eskridge had already done something most folks wouldn’t when he decided to relocate to Nashville 21 years ago. He abandoned a high-paying gig with NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, to join loads of other aspiring musicians in this town’s highly competitive scene. But his talent — a powerful, dynamic voice, impressive guitar skills, and immense on-stage flair and charisma, were such it didn’t take long for him to become a familiar face on bandstands, not just in Music City, but many other places.
From serving as an opening act for Aaron Neville and Jonny Lang to doing background vocals for a host of A-list country acts like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett, Jason Eskridge consistently demonstrated he was a standout. Eskridge also had another advantage that helped him get a foothold: He knew some key players locally. “Like many, I came to Nashville to pursue a career in music,” Eskridge recalled during a recent interview. “Because my introduction to Nashville as a music town was through the CCM [Contemporary Christian Music] industry, namely Gotee Records and Nicole Mullen, I wasn’t really faced with the daunting task of starting from ground zero. I had some pretty solid relationships here even before I arrived.”
Still, he didn’t just want to be a successful part of someone else’s operation. Eskridge had bigger goals beyond establishing himself as a performer. Instead, he wanted more exposure and notoriety for other artists like himself, people who weren’t country, folk, Americana, rock, or pop. They were mostly black acts, trying to become famous in a city whose once-proud legacy as a behemoth in R&B and soul circles had nearly been bulldozed to oblivion by urban renewal that wiped out a large part of the Black music infrastructure. Eskridge certainly wasn’t the first person to be a tireless advocate for black music and African American performers. Still, he came up with the idea that set him apart from others — a multi-artist performance showcase he billed “Sunday Night Soul.”
“I believe that when telling a story or relaying information, the more diverse the perspectives the better.”
Upon taking the idea to the owners of The 5 Spot, Eskridge says the immediate reaction was ideal. “It was very much accepted and supported,” he adds. “Because of the melting pot that Nashville has become, there are fans of every music genre here. In short, I don’t think a genre of music exists that wouldn’t at least find a small following here. As for The 5 Spot, they have been nothing but supportive since day one. Again, having forged relationships with them before I approached them about Sunday Night Soul, I expected no less than for them to get behind me and support it, which is exactly what they’ve done.” Sunday Night Soul features artists doing both their own tunes and covers of soul and R&B classics in a manner that keeps dance floors filled.
But then came the horrific event of May 25. George Floyd, a resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was flung to the ground by police, then (now former officer) Derek Chauvin put his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. For what? Floyd may or may not have passed a counterfeit $20 bill. As a stunned nation viewed continuous footage of Floyd on the ground, shouting, “I can’t breathe,” passions ignited across America. Black folks had been marching and protesting against police misconduct and brutality for decades but were now joined in the streets by whites, both young and old, as well as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. While sadly some demonstrations degenerated into scenes of looting and rioting, the vast majority were and remain peaceful. As a result, police misconduct and systemic racism have come under constant examination inside and outside corporate America, as well as every marketplace in every American city.
When asked how the protests have affected him musically, Eskridge responds this way: “As a songwriter and social media influencer, I tend to write and post about love and positivity in hopes to bring some goodness into the world through my words. As of late, I’ve felt compelled to not only continue to spread those messages, but to also speak more deliberately and specifically on the realities that I and so many others face as a black man in America.”
A generally upbeat, optimistic person, no one could ever accurately stick the “angry black man” label on Jason Eskridge. But even with his track record in Nashville over two decades and the ongoing popularity of Sunday Night Soul, like every other African American, he has memories of racist behavior and attitudes. “Yes. Once I was on stage at a popular venue, and I asked the sound engineer — who was also the owner — to make a change to my monitor mix to which he replied over the speakers for everyone to hear, “Would you like some watermelon too?” I walked off the stage and never returned. That venue has since closed down.”
Eskridge is unconcerned about whether he’s ever gotten the support from the city’s culture power brokers he deserves. “I don’t know that I’ve ever looked to be supported by the establishment,” he responds. “I’m more inclined to invest in individual relationships. I’ve definitely been supported by those.” However, he is outspoken when it comes to the issue of how black musicians and artists are viewed and treated locally. When directly queried about whether Black music has gotten the institutional respect it deserves here? “Not really,” Eskridge says. “There have always been soul nights, etcetera for black artists, and those who love that music, but in my experience that world has always existed independently of any industry attention. The success of Sunday Night Soul has been mostly because it was developed as a grassroots platform that depends primarily on individual relationships rather than industry backing.”
He also doesn’t buy into the notion that being a black artist comes with a duty to address social issues in his music. “I don’t necessarily think that artists have a responsibility to address those issues in their music,” he adds. “But I think that in a perfect world, they would use the platform created by their music to address those issues.” He sees Sunday Night Soul as a vehicle that can bring people together, and doesn’t anticipate it will be specifically addressing the protests when it returns. Eskridge elaborates by saying, “Since day one Sunday Night Soul has strategically set out to be a platform that encourages diversity, inclusion, and unity. We will continue to stand and build on those principles. The only thing that will change concerning the presentation is that we will be adding live streaming.”
His previous statement notwithstanding, Eskridge does have definite ideas about changes he’d like to see regarding the treatment and promotion of Nashville’s black musicians. “As a performer, I would like to see more local black artists considered for lineups of local music festivals, etcetera. As a singer/songwriter, I would like to see more blacks invited to the proverbial songwriting table. I believe that when telling a story or relaying information, the more diverse the perspectives the better. I would also like to see us looked at for more than just our musical abilities. I would like to see more blacks in leadership and decision-making roles as those roles relate to how business is done. It often seems to me that the only time black voices are valued is when we’re singing, playing, or serving to bring some sort of validation to the music that is being made, but not when it’s time to make important decisions. It is difficult to invest time, energy, and resources into a system where you don’t see yourself represented in the leadership, especially as a minority.”
He also has no reservations about advising or inviting other black musicians to relocate here. “I would [encourage that],” Eskridge continues. “There really are only a few cities where you can live if you want to be truly immersed in a thriving music scene; Nashville is one of those cities. And while we definitely have some growing and improving to do, the groundwork has been laid for Nashville to become the premier music city — pun intended — in the United States no matter the genre. I would just strongly encourage them to make sure they have a support system that consists of people who believe in them, but also people who will be honest with them even when it’s something that they don’t want to hear.”
“I think like with most things, my experience has been a mixture of highs and lows,” Eskridge concludes in assessing his career in Nashville to date. “Because of my time here I’ve been able to perform on some of the most prestigious stages in the world. I’ve been paid to travel and have experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have. At the same time, I and many of my colleagues have been overlooked for opportunities that would have allowed us to bring a potentially new and absolutely more diverse perspective to the overall voice of Nashville. To be clear, we aren’t looking for handouts, just an opportunity to be a substantial and lasting part of the music that makes Nashville ‘Music City.’ ”
Follow Jason Eskridge on Instagram at @jasoneskridge or on Spotify.