After transferring from Farragut High School in Knoxville to Rhea County High several months ago, Tommy Blackburn was simply the new kid in the hallways.
After he and his former classmates and current bandmates Alex Zimmermann and Sam Travis returned from the School Jam USA competition in Anaheim, Calif., Blackburn was the drummer who helped win his new school $500.
The trio's band, Ergo We Play, finished third out of more than 115 high-school-age bands, and Zimmermann took top vocalist honors. The experience has opened new doors for the guys and, for Blackburn, it has definitely changed his status at school.
"I've made a lot of new friends and met a lot of people," he said. "They make jokes when
I walk by like, 'There's a rock star.' It's been really cool going back to school. People I didn't know were saying, 'Hey, I watched you streaming live.' "
He said some of the teachers cut him slack on a few of his assignments, and he and the principal have been discussing ways to utilize his part of the $1,500 prize money the teens won for their respective schools.
"One idea is starting an open-mike night at Rhea County," Blackburn said. "We've also talked about starting a class called Open Jam Session. You'd have to test in at the beginning of the year, and you'd get an hour credit. It'd be like PE for musicians."
Blackburn and Zimmermann have been playing together for a number of years. For Travis, his first time on a real stage in front of an audience was for this competition.
"It was really different," Travis said. "It wasn't intimidating at all once we did the sound check. It was pure excitement."
"It definitely was an experience that changed our view on being in a band a lot," Zimmermann said. "We got to meet a lot of people in the industry. It made it more serious."
Kurt Zimmermann, Alex' father, suggested the band enter the contest. Entrants had to be high-school students, and they had to submit original material.
"Once we decided to do it, we recorded three songs and then rehearsed liked crazy," Zimmermann said.
Sponsored by the National Association of Music Merchants, the competition was held during the NAMM Show in Downtown Disney. More than 200,000 votes were cast online.
Ergo We Play got almost 5,000 votes.
The experience has only made the trio more determined to work even harder.
"We were one of 117 bands, and we got No. 3," Blackburn said. "And, really, the winner was a jazz band and No. 2 was a girl group from Indiana, so we were the top rock band. We were also the only band in the whole thing from the Southeast."
The guys said they have booked a few shows since the competition and are looking to play in Chattanooga, but their main focus right now is getting back into the studio to record new material.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...