A.J. Newton whole-heartedly agrees that 2018 has been good to his nautical Rock ‘n’ Roll band Rusty Shipp.
Fresh off of being named “Artist of the Year” and “Album of the Year” by JesusFreakHideout.com, a Christian music website, the band released its newest single, “Crack Baby” on Monday and is finishing up in the studio for the upcoming concept album, “Liquid Exorcist,” expected to be released in early 2019.
On top of that, Newton, a Waldron native, was recently offered a drum endorsement deal from a company in Georgia.
“All I know how to do is get up and be thankful for the blessings I’ve got,” he said during a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “I feel like I’ve got a second leap on life with my drumming.”
Now living in Nashville, Newton has had a full slate on his 2018 calendar.
It started with the band earning “Artist of the Year” and “Album of the Year” awards in March after their previous album, “Mortal Ghost,” was reviewed by the Christian website.
The band toured throughout the summer, including a couple of stops in Shelby County.
The first was a return to roots for Newton, who met his wife, Maraysa, as a student at Waldron High School, where he graduated in 2001.
He still has family who live in Waldron and Shelbyville, as well as Greenfield. He’s the oldest son of Tony Newton, a former president of the Shelby County Commissioners. And his grandfather, Robert Newton, was also a Shelby County Commissioner in the 1980s.
The band played in this year’s Waldron’s Fourth of July festivities.
Newton admitted he took the opportunity that evening to reflect up on stage that behind him was the elementary school where he started to learn how to play the drums. That night also allowed him to see the famed Fourth of July fireworks display.
“That was my thing, going to watch fireworks blow up (as a child),” he said before adding he was in the high school marching band. “That was very full-circle for me.”
He said he was able to visit with that event’s organizers.
“That was the best fireworks I’ve ever seen,” he said. “(Jason Yantiss) knows what’s up. I told the guys in the band, this is legit good.”
He said the band is hoping to play at next year’s Fourth of July celebration and was still in the process of confirming those details. All of the logistics are being worked out, he said.
Following that show, the band returned to Shelby County for a show at West Side Pub and Grub in Shelbyville in August before making tour stops in Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee and Alabama.
Since then, the band started rehearsing for the upcoming album.
The name of the album is a hybrid of two songs that are being recorded, “Liquid Pendulum” and “Evil Exorcist,” he said. It’s the first time the band, made up of Newton on drums, lead vocalist and guitarist Russ T. Shipp, lead guitarist Elijah Apperson and bass player Andrew Speed, has made a concept album.
The concept behind the album is that an evil organization has laced the ocean with mines, Newton said. The idea came about from stories of boats accidentally hitting mines from World War II. The term “exorcism” evokes the image of a priest casting out a demon. The band used that imagery to imagining the mines taking out innocent lives, he said.
Shipp, whose quirky name clearly inspired the band’s name, had been thinking about doing a concept album for awhile, Newton said. Once a year, Shipp visits a monastery in Kentucky, where he reflects on the past year and brainstorms on where he wants to go with his lyrics.
He returned from his yearly retreat in February and told the other band members that he had a great idea where he wanted to paint a whole picture. Each song in the album helps reveal that picture.
“It’s going to be neat because we’ve done nothing like this before,” Newton said. “Some bands are scared to do it because it’s too hard to tell a story with song. He found a good way to do it.”
The album will have eight tracks with some of them being instrumentals.
By the time Shipp first suggested his album idea, seven of the eight songs were already written. Newton said Shipp has a year’s worth of music written.
“I joke with him, I don’t know how his brain works but I’m glad it does,” Newton said with a laugh.
The band has started to get air time on a few radio stations across the country through an unplanned and unexpected connection with Newton’s neighbor.
In October as he and his wife were coming home from their first anniversary celebration, his neighbor flagged him down after her van broke down. He pulled out his jumper cables and the two exchanged business cards.
Calling it “divine intervention,” it turned out she worked for local radio station Way-FM in Nashville. And through her connections, the band’s music started getting airtime on Way-FM’s sister station in Dallas.
The band has been in heavy rotation ever since, and two other stations have reached out, one of which premiered the single, “Devil Jonah” over Thanksgiving.
Rusty Shipp was recently one of the bands listed on Billboard’s Christian Rock Most Added list because of the national airplay that the band has started to receive.
Newton moved to Nashville two years ago with no connections in the industry.
He responded to three Craig’s List ads, one of which was for Rusty Shipp. The band leader requested Newton submit an application, and the two met for coffee.
After that meeting, he was in the band.
“On a creative level, we hit it off,” Newton said. “You get me, I get you. I’ve been best friends with him. All the band stuff aside, we’re going to be pals for life.”
Newton recently found himself reflecting on this year’s developments with his wife. When he moved to Nashville, he would have been happy playing in a cover band performing the occasional gig.
“It’s been a fun year,” he said. “Obviously God had bigger plans for me.”