Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
For Christian Lopez, 2017 has already been a year to remember. And it’s about to get even better.
Earlier this summer, the 22-year-old Martinsburg native was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know.” He recently completed work on his second studio album, “Red Arrow,” which is scheduled for release September 22.
The following night, he and his band, The Christian Lopez Band, will play a homecoming show at the Shenandoah Hotel in downtown Martinsburg, his first show here in two years.
His busy schedule keeps Lopez from getting back to Martinsburg as often as he’d like. But he always relishes the opportunity to come home and spend time with family and friends.
“Especially with the record coming out, you’re touring 90 percent of the time,” Lopez said. ‘the other 10 percent you’re just trying to promote the record with things the label wants you to do. And if you want to be a success, you’ve got to say yes to it all. And I do, so I’m gone all the time.”
“When I can get home, I try to utilize it as much as I can. I go to the park, walk my dogs, hang out with family. Whenever I get the chance to be home, I take it.”
During an interview at The Hub in downtown Martinsburg in early August, Lopez was already looking forward to playing in front of family, friends and fans both old and new.
“Coming to the Shenandoah is a big deal for us, just because – first off, it’s been two years now since we’ve even played in Martinsburg,” Lopez said. “We hardly get home anymore, so it’s like a big homecoming for me coming back.”
“And then, whenever we do play in Martinsburg, we don’t really have many venues. So we always have to find a space and make it our own venue. Luckily, the Shenandoah Hotel is still alive. So, on the 23rd of September, we’re going to bring in a big stage, bring in full lights, full sound. We’re going to go crazy and throw a big show.”
According to Lopez, the fire marshal-approved capacity for the Shenandoah Hotel is around 600 people, so his crew will be busy that night keeping the crowd in check. “We’re going to have to keep a really good handle on it, that’s for sure,” he said.
No matter where his career and his music might take him, Lopez said, Martinsburg will always be in his blood.
“I think it’s hard-pressed in me to never leave, and I don’t want to leave,” he said. “At the end of the day, I just want to come back here where it’s quiet and it’s peaceful and there’s good people and settle down.”
Like much of West Virginia, Martinsburg and the Eastern Panhandle have struggled in recent years with a dramatic increase in opioid addiction. Serving as a role model of sorts for those seeking a better life is something Lopez takes seriously.
“I always try to express how important having pride in West Virginia as a whole is,” he said. “I worked with the state over the last four years on a campaign to keep young people going and wanting to be here. It’s definitely a goal of mine. And I hope it’s inspiring to some people that it doesn’t matter where you’re from; if you want to get it done and you work hard enough, you can make it happen.”
Music has been a part of Lopez’s life for as long as he can remember. His mother was a music teacher who encouraged her children to take lessons at a young age. Christian started playing the piano at five and the guitar at 6. After playing somewhat informally in various bands for a while, he began touring at age 16.
After graduating from Martinsburg High School, Lopez began attending Shepherd University on a full scholarship. But during his first semester at the Jefferson County school, he received a record deal and hired a manager. And so school, at least for the time being, was placed on hold.
“That was the deal with my parents,” he said. “I had to be in school until I had some kind of deal on the table, signed. So that happened in the middle of my first semester. So when that was done, I was gone.”
Lopez released his first extended play record, or EP, called “Pilot,” in 2014. His first full-length record, “Onward,” followed a year later.
From playing shows in various venues throughout Martinsburg and the surrounding area, Lopez quickly expanded his horizons. He and his band once played for nearly 4,000 people at Minglewood Hall in Memphis. Just last month, they opened for the Brothers Osborne at Carrington Pavilion in Danville, Va., which has a capacity of just over 6,000.
But his favorite venue thus far has been the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., where he saw numerous acts as a fan long before performing there himself.
“I saw so many great bands there,” he said. “Playing there is special to me and the band.”
Nashville currently serves as Lopez’s home away from home, but he prefers to take a businesslike approach to the Music City.
“For me, that’s a town I go to when I need to work,” he said. “I’m writing songs, I’m making records, I’m working on promoting the records. I go there like it’s one big kind of offi ce. And it’s a great town, no doubt. I love it – (there’s a) lot of great music and incredible food. But it’s a town where you get things done.”
The son of Jamie and Lesley Lopez, Christian attended Berkeley Heights Elementary School, Orchard View Intermediate School and South Middle School and graduated from Martinsburg High School.
Musically, Christian was mostly drawn to rock at first – until, when he was 15, his father introduced him to legendary country singer/songwriters like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.
‘my dad was like a Sherpa, through his record collection,” said Lopez. “He graduated in 1987, so he had a lot of hair metal love and a lot of good old rock and roll that he loved. But I think he showed me that at a young age because it’s appealing to a young kid.”
“Rock and roll was my thing. But when I got older, just by chance, he showed me classic country and lots of cool things like that. And that sort of blew my mind, because I never really paid as much attention as I should to the meaning and message of a song. So that was inspiring as a songwriter. Once that happened, I went out and bought an acoustic guitar.”
“My parents have always been really supportive. My mom, especially, has had a huge role. She was the one putting me in lessons and buying me my guitars when I was a kid. So it was a beautiful fusion of my dad’s record collection and my mom’s theory of discipline.”
At first, Lopez’s parents were actively involved in his career, whether it involved transporting gear from one show to the next or helping to book a venue. During the past year or two, Lopez said, his professional team has shouldered most of the load, but his parents are still supportive and do everything they can to help. Lesley and Jamie currently work together as agents for ERA Liberty Realty.
After writing his own material during the early stages of his career, Lopez began working with several veteran Nashville songwriters during the recording of “Red Arrow.” It was a process that required some adjustment.
“I think it changed everything for me,” he said. ‘the EP, and then the record, I’d written over (several) years – everything that I had worked up until that point of recording it was all my stuff. And then in the time between that and this new record coming out, I’ve had about a year and a half. So you’ve got to buckle down. You’ve got to chase down the inspiration.”
‘so getting in the room with different songwriters – at first it’s uncomfortable,” he continued. “In the beginning, I didn’t like it. But they really help you go outside your comfort zone – especially stylistically, they do things that you wouldn’t normally do – and I thought it was very beneficial.”
‘they say things you wouldn’t normally say, but are honest to you. They open up a side of your brain that you didn’t think could be untapped.”
As much satisfaction as Lopez derives from writing a good song, seeing that song resonate with a live audience is even more special.
“I think the main thing that gets me going,” he said, “and jazzes me up is when we’re playing a live show and you’re seeing the people in the audience sing the lyrics back to you and have a truly amazing experience on their own in the midst of the music. Because I’ve had that my whole life while seeing my favorite bands. And so, when I can see someone have that feeling that I used to feel… it’s the most gratifying feeling that I’ve ever felt.”
Shows are still being booked for Lopez’s upcoming tour, which he expects to last through the fall and winter and into the spring festival season. Most of his concerts have been in the East and Midwest, though he will occasionally travel west for a show, and he hopes to play in the United Kingdom sometime in 2018.
The best career advice Lopez has received thus far came from Scott Avett, co-founder of Lopez’s favorite band, the Avett Brothers. Recently, Lopez had a chance to meet the group following a show. Avett asked Lopez how his own career was going, and Lopez said, “It’s going good. I’ve got a really good team; we’ve got a really good plan.”
Avett replied, “It doesn’t matter about your team. Forget about your team. It’s all about you. You do what you want to do. You make the decisions. It’s you.”
That conversation had a profound impact upon Lopez. “Ever since that happened,” he said, “whenever I’m stressed or there’s trouble… I always find myself going back to that. So that’s been super helpful for me.”
The recognition from Rolling Stone has also helped quite a bit.
“Honestly, it feels great,” said Lopez. “It feels great to have that validation for what you’ve been working on for so long. And that’s the beautiful part. It’s just validation, at the end of the day, for all the work you’ve put in… It just helps us get to that next level. Every little step counts. (And) it’s gotten us a lot of gigs – a lot of gigs that we have in the works, a lot of gigs that have yet to be announced – but it’s great to get the word out.”
According to some music critics, Lopez and his sound fit into a genre of country music known as Americana. But, with “Red Arrow” in particular, he has tried to explore some new directions.
“I think this record has a much more mature sound to it,” said Lopez. “I think it has more rock and roll. I think it has more diversity. There’s a lot of different things going on. Kenneth Pattengale from Milk Carton Kids is on it. Vince Gill played on it. We have an amazing producer, Marshall Altman. I think the songs keep getting better, so of course I think it’s my best work. But I think it’s going to be less Americana and more accessible.”
‘through this whole process, I’ve never put a label on myself; I sort of let people put a label on it, let the press put a label on it, and then say, ‘okay, this is my home, my genre, whatever.” But every day I go into writing sessions and it naturally finds itself moving somewhere new. In a few years it’ll find itself going somewhere new as well. So I don’t ever want to confine myself to any sort of genre style. And I think this record pokes out of that, for sure.”
Lopez may be living in the moment with his new album and upcoming tour, but he has also given some thought to what lies ahead. Music, he said, is what he plans to do for as long as possible.
“At the end of the day, this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life,” he said. ‘so I want to share it with as many people (as possible), and I (want to) tour every day.”
“Because that’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little kid, is be on the road. I just want to be making music every night.”