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WITF Music: The Jess Zimmerman Band

Confronting and confounding cliches.

  • Joe Ulrich
Joe Barszowski, left, Jess Zimmerman, center, and John Knobler, right, of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

Jeremy Long / WITF

Joe Barszowski, left, Jess Zimmerman, center, and John Knobler, right, of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

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Trucks. Beer. Jeans. Dogs. Bonfires. Jess Zimmerman is aware of the cliches surrounding country music. And yet…

“These are actual things I have done,” says the lead vocalist of the Jess Zimmerman Band.

“I’ve sat in my pickup truck. I did have a bird dog. Bonfires till the morning, line dancing.”

And she did grow up living and working on a farm. She’d even play gigs late into the night and then go milk cows shortly after.

“Very crazy hours,” she says.

“I would either milk a 4:30 in the morning shift, and then I would have a gig that night. So then I’m up till 1:30 or 2:30 or 3:30. Or vice versa; I was getting home from a gig and just getting right back up and milking that morning.”

Jess Zimmerman of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

Jeremy Long / WITF

Jess Zimmerman of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

Jess talks about her deep association with farming, family, and music as she sits among the band’s gear in the WITF performance studio. On either side of her are bandmates Joe Barszowski (guitar/vocals), John Knobler (bass/vocals) and Joe Mattis (drums/percussion).

The 30 year old singer grew up on a family farm in Ephrata.

“The farm that I grew up on is a family generation farm,” Zimmerman says. “It is still owned by my grandma. My cousins live there, it’s farmed by my family.”

The farm and music were woven together to create the backdrop for her early years.

“We were just very involved in music, in the church and as a family. Like that down-home thing you hear in country music of, you’re sitting on your front porch. We all got together and jammed at the home farm.”

The soundtrack of her formative years included Country music, Christian music and hymns. Her first CD was an album by Martina McBride.

Zimmerman worked on the family farm and other farms off and on since she was 16. While she doesn’t actively work there now, she still helps out if needed. These days the band is her full-time occupation, though a conscious decision to pursue music didn’t come until later. She began by entering talent shows and, when one of the judges told her she should get a band, she did just that. After some time with a cover band, Jess joined a musical project that toured and played at NASCAR events. This would later evolve into the Jess Zimmerman Band.

“We were just very involved in music, in the church and as a family. Like that down-home thing you hear in country music of, you’re sitting on your front porch. We all got together and jammed at the home farm.”

Cliché or not, certain themes run through rural life: farming, trucks, hunting, guns, family, church. It’s something the band confronts in their song “One More Country Song”.

The Jess Zimmerman Band performing.

Jeremy Long / WITF

Joe Barszowski, left, Joe Mattis, back, Jess Zimmerman, center, and John Knobler, right, of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

“The truck, the dog, all those kinds of lyrics are in there,” says Barszowski with a laugh. “We basically made a whole list of all the stuff and we put it in.”

“Every line would be something that is your traditional country song,” Zimmerman adds.

They chime in with the usual cliches:
“Sitting in a pickup truck with my old bird dog.”
“Driving down a country road.”
“Trucks, beer.”
“So it’s kind of a jab in a way at country music,” Zimmerman says. “But also still…”
“Having fun,” Knobler adds.

Country roads, family jam sessions, bonfires; it can all sound bucolic. And yet the Jess Zimmerman Band’s music touches on heavier issues as well, things that until recently weren’t a big part of the public discourse.

“I’m a very big advocate for mental health,” Zimmerman says. “I’ve really struggled with that as a kid and to this day. We got into this project with the Jess Zimmerman band, where I had to look inward and find words and create a song. I had to process, and not shut down and be like, ‘Well, no, I don’t feel that way’ or ‘I can’t feel that way’ or ‘I can’t share that because someone might use it against me or judge me’.”

“Mental health is no different than lung cancer, it’s no different than diabetes. You take medications for those things and no one says, ‘Well, shame on you because you got lung cancer’. But it seems like it was acceptable and it’s becoming less acceptable with mental health.”

One of the songs the band played in the WITF studio is titled “The Old Me”.

The old me still haunts me, like a scene from a scary movie
I look back and I can see every scar reopening
Oh, It haunts me
Like a scene from a scary movie
I look back and I can see every scar reopening
Oh, It haunts me
I’m my own worst enemy

When asked about it, Zimmerman turns to her bandmates.

“It would be really interesting to hear your perspective of ‘The Old Me’.”

“I think it was put together after you were really having a down time,” Barszowski says. “For me when I hear it being played, it’s like a celebration of you coming out of all that and getting everything back on track.”

“And not being afraid to talk about it,” Knobler adds.

Barszowski continues, “But it’s still laying in the background. And at any time it can grab you again. So it still haunts you because it’s there.”

“I look at it as growth,” Mattis says. “I mean, when I hear it and listen, the transformation and the growth of where she is today is just unbelievable.”

The band continues the conversation about the struggles of mental health.

The Jess Zimmerman Band performs for WITF Music

Jeremy Long / WITF

Jess Zimmerman of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

“Shame is so powerful,” Zimmerman says.

“Mental health is no different than lung cancer, it’s no different than diabetes. You take medications for those things and no one says, ‘Well, shame on you because you got lung cancer’. But it seems like it was acceptable and it’s becoming less acceptable with mental health.”

“I think if there’s anything that I can, like, attest to [it’s] try and be your biggest advocate and talk to people about it.”

“So thanks for coming to my TED talk,” she says with a laugh.

As our interview ends, I ask if there was anything we didn’t touch on. Zimmerman thinks for a moment, then ticks off some pieces of advice.

“Drink water, read your Bible and eat your veggies … Call your momma …Take your dog for a walk.”

The Jess Zimmerman Band performing in the WITF studio.

Jeremy Long / WITF

Jess Zimmerman of the Jess Zimmerman Band perform on WITF Music on June 7, 2022.

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