WILLIAMSBURG — In typical settings, it is hard not to notice Nathan Lienard.
At well over six feet tall with broad shoulders, a full beard and often times wearing a baseball cap pulled down close to his eyes, he looks like he could mean business if he felt like it.
As he steps up to a microphone in a loud and crowded restaurant, Nathan introduces himself with a joke and a warm smile. The crowd chuckles and simmers to a low roar. When he begins strumming his guitar and singing, the crowd quiets even more.
By his third song, Nathan has transformed the noisy dinner service at a popular restaurant into a hushed and captive audience. Over the course of an evening he weaves his way through a finely curated mix of rarely heard covers that span a multitude of genres and original songs brimming with charm and emotion.
As one might guess, Nathan has worked hard at his craft to be as good as he is. His music prowess has been earned along a winding road over the last few decades.
From Baseball to Music
Nathan was not born a musician. He grew up loving music but he never had a burning desire to play. He enjoyed what his parents played while in the car and when he got older he to a liking to a then up and coming band out of Charlottesville called Dave Mathews Band.
“I didn’t pick up the guitar until my junior year in college,” Nathan remembers. “But I knew about Dave long before because growing up in the area, I had friends with older brothers and sisters who went to Virginia Tech and UVA. They would bring back tapes of live shows at sorority parties or something.”
While music was an interest, Nathan’s primary focus was on baseball and one day making it to the Major Leagues. He played for Tabb High School during the early to mid 1990s and became one of the more dominant pitchers in the Bay Rivers District during that era.
After high school he went to University of Central Florida and played Division I ball long enough to figure out that playing professional baseball was not in his future.
“I realized I was not going to be a Red Sox or a Yankee when I grew up and that hurt my feelings,” Nathan said. “So I went back home.”
He transferred to Christopher Newport University and was living in the dorms when Nathan made friends with a drummer who liked Dave Matthews Band even more than he did; so much so that he taught Nathan how to play the guitar just so he could play the drums on DMB songs with live accompaniment.
Nathan had transferred to CNU with the intention of continuing to play baseball, but had a change of heart before the season started.
“At that point I had blown out my arm,” he admits. “I made the team on past merits more than my current ability.”
As he was about to drive to his first CNU baseball practice, Nathan decided that playing the game was not how he wanted to spend his time.
“I turned off my car, went back upstairs to my dorm room and picked up the guitar.”
For the rest of his college years Nathan devoted himself to learning his instrument and occasionally writing songs. His music mentor would give some feedback the songs before insisting that they play a DMB cover. When he liked one of Nathan’s originals, he insisted that Nathan write the song down before he forgot it.
Life After College
Nathan went on to graduate from CNU and got a job working for a software company.
Through the early 2000s, he got married and had three children, all the while continuing to play his guitar. He penned the occasional tune and sporadically recorded it for YouTube.
After the birth of his youngest child in 2009, Nathan put together a slide show with pictures of his family’s new addition and posted it on Facebook. He picked one of his original tunes as the backing track for the project. Before too long, the video started to spark his friends’ interests.
“I got several Facebook messages saying stuff like, ‘congratulations, your kid doesn’t look like an alien. What is that song?,'” Nathan said. “People were telling me that they spent all day googling. I told them that it was just something I came up with and they were like ‘what?'”
Nathan was flattered by the warm reception to his work and decided to record an album.
“I did a very poor recording of some original songs,” Nathan said with a smile. “I went through CD Baby, got on iTunes, and thought I was going to win a Grammy and retire. Then my Mom bought two copies and that was it.”
Despite the lower than expected sales of his self-released record, Nathan continued playing music at home and occasionally posting videos.
In that same year, he was approached by a New York-based singer/songwriter he followed named Mark Radcliffe. As it turned out, Mark was following Nathan’s music right back. The established musician booked a string of shows along the east coast and Mark asked Nathan if he could open at one of Nathan’s shows.
“I replied to him, ‘I am sorry to have mislead you, my man. But I have never played a show,” Nathan remembered. “But I got to thinking that I could fill a room just once, even if it was out of morbid curiosity.”
So he found a restaurant that would let his friend play and, more importantly, let Nathan open. They played the show in front of a full house and were well received. Much to Nathan’s surprise, the venue asked him when he would be coming back.
Ever since that night in October of 2009, Nathan has played hundreds of shows all over Hampton Roads.
It is a busy life working a full-time job, having a family and playing shows two or three nights a week, and Nathan credits his wife for being supportive of his passion.
Over the last decade Nathan has cultivated quite the local following. He prides himself on playing covers of deep cut songs by established recording artists. Songs that people have either never heard, or have not heard in a long time.
While he enjoys playing to rooms of people who already know and love him, he also loves the challenge of playing to strangers.
“There is something special about going into a room where you don’t even know the bartender or waitstaff and it’s just you and your guitar,” Nathan notes. “It’s not playing for your mom who has to love it. I am not playing songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Margaritaville”. I playing songs they have not heard in a long time or never heard or originals. It’s harder to win them over, but when you do, it becomes a very special night.”
Going forward, Nathan is looking to continue on at the pace he has been going. The thought of getting bigger and booking tours that would take him away from his family does not interest him.
However, one goal that he does feel is attainable is getting his original songs covered by other musicians.
“It would blow me away if an established artist covered one of my songs,” he said. “Even if they needed a tenth song on an album, or a B-side of a B-side, just to fill space. For someone to take one of my songs and hear it on the radio just once, that would be amazing.”
To listen to Nathan’s original song, “Some Days,” click the video below: