Brian Phillips, president of CMT, was in a bathroom at a Nashville restaurant in June 2009 when he heard a familiar voice.
It was Atlanta native Jaron Lowenstein. With his twin brother Evan, he became a pop star a decade ago with the sweet pop confection “Crazy For This Girl” but that fame quickly dissipated.
Now, Jaron was telling Phillips he wanted to be a country star.
Phillips, who found Jaron’s moxie endearing when he was head of alternative rock station 99X in the late 1990s, decided to support him with advice and names. Within a few months, Jaron had pulled off a hit country single “Pray For You.” He is set to perform at the free Kicks 101.5 Last Blast of Summer concert at Stone Mountain Park Sept. 4. (He performs at 6:45 p.m.)
“He’s a student of the music business,” Phillips marveled. “He’s very politically astute. He meets people. He makes connections. He’s almost like an agent from the Catskills.”
Jaron’s background is hardly the norm for a country star. Raised in Atlanta as an Orthodox Jew, he and his brother attended Greenfield Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva High School. Childhood friend Benyamin Cohen recalls them strumming guitars in the back of Talmud class.
As a country artist, Jaron goes by Jaron and the Long Road to Love, dispensing with his Jewish last name when promoting himself.
He said he’s not avoiding Lowenstein for any fear it might alienate the country audience. “I only leave it off because I’ve been called just Jaron for the better part of my life,” he wrote in an email. “There aren’t that many of us so no need for a second name usually when addressing me. I’m super proud of my name and heritage.”
The Long Road to Love is a concept name, representing where he is in life: “It’s my way of letting listeners know the songs I write are about who I am as I try to figure out love. It’s not that I haven’t written about other things but relationships interest me.”
Jaron has had a taste of fame before. With “Crazy For That Girl” in 2000, Evan and Jaron landed on Jay Leno, MTV and People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” issue.
But it wasn’t idyllic. “They got thrown into the same pool as ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, unfortunately,” their childhood friend Cohen said. “They were really singer songwriter types. I think they were marketed wrong.”
Both Evan and Jaron said they resented the boy band connection after spending years trying to build their rock cred. “We weren’t prepared to combat that,” Jaron said.
“We turned down a lot of money and opportunities to not be that,” his brother Evan added in a separate interview. “That really hurt us. We were too young. We couldn’t fathom people couldn’t get us.”
Evan would soon start a family and the two would part ways with the pop world in 2003.
Fast forward to 2009. Evan was in San Francisco starting a new Web company Stage It, Jaron had his own plans. to move to Nashville to conquer the town.
He admitted some folks found him arrogant. “They’d say, ‘You need a little more humility.’ I say there’s a time for humility but there’s a time for passion. I don’t believe I’ve earned the right to be humble. I need to be aggressive.”
CMT’s Phillips was certainly intrigued when Jaron boldly told him, “I’m going to have a top 5 country hit.” After thir chance bathroom encounter, he took Jaron to the CMT Awards as his guest and introduced him to important country music types.
In November, Phillips invited him to the even bigger CMA Awards. Jaron played “Pray For You” to Phillips in the Lincoln Navigator. “I was impressed,” Phillips said. But he worried it was a one-joke song. “Don’t worry,” Jaron assured Phillips. “It will take care of itself. It will get played.” A few months later, Jaron had one of the most requested songs on CMT.
“Pray For You” is a tongue-in-cheek revenge song from the point of view of a man who prays his ex suffers.
I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flower pot falls from a window sill
And knocks you in the head like I’d like to
“I was in a relationship,” he said. “I had gotten hurt. After she left, I wished really bad things upon her. Then I started laughing about it. I totally overreacted. That’s the ugly part of being human.”
When “Pray For You” came out last November, fans began spreading the word through Facebook (via advice from his tech-savvy brother Evan) and requesting it at radio. Over several months, one by one, stations started playing it. “It became on of those viral things,” Jaron said. (Proving he had no hometown advantage, Atlanta’s country stations 94.9/The Bull and Kicks 101.5 were not early adapters though they both gave it moderate rotation once it became a hit.)
The song’s sardonic lyrics turned off some program directors, including the one in Los Angeles, of all places. It peaked at No. 12 on the country chart in July. But it sold far more downloads than a typical single that fails to make the top 10: 854,954 so far. At one point, it was the No. 1 most downloaded country song and has sold more than Carrie Underwood’s recent No. 1 single “Undo It.” His album “Getting Dressed in the Dark,” which came out in June, has sold a more modest 87,738.
“I think there is only upside for Jaron with that song,” wrote Scott Lindy, who oversaw 94.9/The Bull until last week, in an email. ” He gets everyone’s attention and we all (radio people and fans) want to talk to him when he’s in the room or doing a backstage. One song can get you noticed and start to you in the right direction. Now let’s see what he follows up with.”
That follow up is the more sincere second single, a ballad called “That’s Beautiful To Me.” Jaron said it has already sold more than 22,796 downloads even before radio had begun actively playing it.
He said he and his team are picking singles partly on “gut” but also on how audiences are reacting on his Facebook page, where he has 134,105 friends as of August 26. He loves the interaction with fans, who will often post 1,000-plus comments on some of his entries.
“I have a sense of humor and like people,” he said. “It’s perfect for my brand. It’s worked wonders. In the end, I have this army of 134,000 people open to what I have to say.” But radio, he said, is still a “big megaphone” and hardly obsolete.
He thinks country’s pop sensibilities meld well with him, as they have with former pop artists such as Jewel and Darius Rucker. Classic rock music, he said, “is today’s country.”
“I’m just looking for my audience,” he said. “I love Bob Seger, Billy Joel and Tom Petty. When I want to hear something like that today, I turn on country radio.”
Most people in country, he said, probably have not “connected the dots” between Evan and Jaron and his current act. But it doesn’t make much difference to him.
“Artistically, I’d like to continue to find interesting situations and stories to write about it and maintain an originality in my approach,” he wrote in an email Thursday. “But big picture, my long term game plan is to simply link together one great day at a time. Just keep doing what I’m doing everyday and enjoying the heck out of it. As for country music, I intend to show loyalty to the format that brought me to the dance even if/when my music crosses over to other formats.”
Childhood friend Cohen chuckled at the first verse of “Pray For You” because it mentions church: “Those who are friends with him on Facebook are laughing at that.”
Jaron defended his use of “church.”
As a songwriter I’m trying to tell a story (often for cathartic purposes) and in order to do so it’s important that my songs are relevant and relatable. Substituting the word “church” for “synagogue” did not hurt the integrity of the song and allowed for more listeners to relate. The story and sentiment remains the same and I’ve simply made it more accessible to 98% more of my audience. Additionally, the song was co-written with my buddy Joel Brentlinger, the son of a Baptist preacher and he said “the only thing that rhymes with synagogue is eggnog and this doesn’t sound like a Christmas song to me!”
In April, “Pray For You” had a second video shot featuring Jaron and actress Jaime Pressly (”My Name is Earl”). It’s definitely goofier and provides a “back story” why the guy in the song was so upset.