Metamora native Jake Maurer is making a good living playing the music he loves in Nashville.
Jake Maurer was 26 years old when he delivered the one-two news punch to his parents.
One caused rejoicing: Jake and his college sweetheart, Katie Taake, were engaged. Two caused concern: They were quitting their jobs as teachers in Mattoon and moving to Nashville, where Jake would try to make it as a musician in the country music capital of the world.
“I pictured him on street corners with his guitar case open, hoping people would give him money,” said Jake’s father, Ken, then the longtime superintendent of Metamora Township High School before serving as Metamora’s mayor.
But Ken and Susan Maurer knew this much about the eldest of their four children: “Never underestimate Jake.”
Today, the Jake Maurer Band is in its 16th year playing five nights a week at the world-famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway in downtown Nashville, situated quite literally in the shadow of the legendary Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. The band also performs across the United States and Canada, and on Jan. 28, they’ll play at Five Points Events Center in Washington, just a few miles from where Jake grew up. (Tickets available online at fivepointswashington.org and jakemaurer.com.)
Jake’s financial success is such that he and Katie live on five acres of ranchland south of Nashville with their five children – Rocky, Rainey, Scarlett, Merakate and Ruby. Jake tends to about 20 head of cows, some chickens and a couple of horses. Neighbors let the cows roam their land and Jake takes care of their pastures and fences.
“I want to be a cowboy when I grow up,” said Jake, now 42. “I’ve loved reading about cowboys my whole life.”
As a kid, though, Jake wasn’t sure what he wanted to be.
He starred in football at Metamora High, helping lead the Redbirds to second place in the Illinois Class 4A playoffs as a junior. He then played linebacker for four years at Eastern Illinois University, where he was a teammate of quarterback Tony Romo, who later starred for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and is a highly regarded TV football analyst today. Maurer earned his degree in 2003 before starting his career as a teacher and coach. But he quickly discovered that line of work wasn’t for him.
By then, Jake’s passion was music.
His parents listened to a lot of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers tunes back home. Mother Susan enrolled Jake and his younger siblings – Kendra, Luke and Adam – in piano lessons. Father Ken had worked to make fine arts a graduation requirement at the high school.
Jake didn’t much care for the piano lessons.
“Our piano teacher lived two blocks from our house,” he said. “I’d walk over with my piano books and see my buddies playing football, throw the books under a tree and go play with them.”
But the choral director at Metamora was Ron Kiesewetter, one of those special educators with the magnetic ability to draw in kids, ignite their passions and open their hearts and minds.
“He changed the whole trajectory of my life,” Jake said.
By then, Jake was also learning to play guitar, in part because he discovered girls tended to dig guitar players. But music was still more of a diversion. It wasn’t until after graduating from EIU that it became an obsession.
Jake started hanging with Jim Sledge, a coaching colleague who also played guitar. They did some open-mic nights around Charleston-Mattoon. Before long, they hooked up with some other teacher musicians and formed a band, Irons In The Fire.
“We were weekend warriors,” Jake said. “Our buddies would come out to see us; a bunch of rowdy guys out drinking beer and cheering for us. Every six weeks, we’d do the circuit – Charleston, Mattoon, Effingham, Arcola, Tuscola and Ashmore. All the big towns. We had a good little following, usually 50 to 100 people.
“Then I started thinking, ‘I wanna do this.’ I wasn’t married yet. No kids. I was making big money, $28,000 a year. I asked Katie to marry me and said, ‘Let’s go to Nashville.’ So we did.”
If you haven’t noticed yet, Jake has a wry, self-effacing sense of humor. It might be his biggest asset, helping him command the stage and earn a reputation as a consummate entertainer.
“Whatever you can make funny is good,” he said. “Get people laughing and feeling good, and you’ve won half the battle right there.”
A few days after arriving in Nashville, Jake got an audition at Tootsie’s. He played two songs and was hired. Management sent him to the Nashville Palace, off the highway near Opryland, to play two four-hour sets a day.
“They put me with an older cowboy, Larry Hamilton, who’d been there forever. He taught me how to entertain and interact with the crowd, which is huge.
“I wouldn’t tell people in Nashville that I play guitar. Everybody in this town can sing, and most everybody can really play. The difference factor is how you relate to the crowd. I found out I’m actually kind of good at that part.”
Jake formed a band and wound up back at Tootsie’s, playing the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. shift for raucous youngsters who preferred their liquor served with rock-and-roll. Not Jake’s wheelhouse, which is traditional country. He got moved to an earlier time slot, where the audience is a little more seasoned and partial to the likes of George Jones and Merle Haggard.
Now the Jake Maurer Band holds down the 6-10 p.m. shift five nights a week and packs the house.
“You can’t soar with the eagles if you roll with turkeys,” Jake said. So he employs Jason Teska on lead guitar, C.J. Wilder on bass, Trey Cordle on drums and Kari Nelson on fiddle and vocals – along with a stable of backup artists to fill in as needed.
“Like a sports team, knowing your role is important,” Jake said. “I know I’m the front guy and what I need to do as far as entertainment. But I need a good band with good people, and that’s what we have.”