Cassie Varner never took music lessons. She grew up painfully shy, not talking to people unless they spoke to her and sometimes ignoring them even then.
“The last thing I thought of was taking music lessons or of performing,” she said.
C.J. Ezidinma took clarinet lessons at his elementary school in Prince Georges County, Md., and moved on to saxophone after a few years. He moved to Washington County, Md., and entered the foster care system during middle school. Knowing something of his struggles and apparently seeing his potential, his band director there, Robert Stike, allowed Ezidinma to take home various instruments to try them out and practice.
Despite each of their unique struggles, Varner, 24, and Ezidinma, 26, both of Greencastle, went on to thrive in music. The duo known as XACE — pronounced “Zace” — will perform at Imagine Hagerstown on Friday evening, Aug. 28, at University Plaza, 50 W. Washington St. — opening for Josh Morningstar. Singer-songwriter Morningstar is a Funkstown native who has worked with Kendell Marvel, Channing Wilson and Autumn McEntire. He was named the 2018 Texas Radio Songwriter of the Year. He wrote several songs for popular country star Cody Jinks, including the No. 1 hit “Must Be the Whiskey.”
Imagine Hagerstown will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Guests are invited to take chairs or blankets to the concert as well as takeout food from downtown restaurants. Alcohol in non-breakable containers will be permitted. Social distancing COVID-19 protocols will be in place, with the venue limited to 50% capacity and masks required when 6-foot distancing can't be maintained.
Ezidinma performed last year at Imagine Hagerstown as a solo act, singing and playing acoustic guitar and piano. His musical quest led from playing on the middle school marching band drumline and in the jazz band as electric guitarist to exploring instruments including trombone, trumpet, violin and cello. He started off by learning specific songs on the instruments.
“I'd play whatever I could get my hands on,” Ezidinma said. “My band director saw that I was a loose cannon with no true direction. I think he felt like, 'I can help this kid pioneer a path for his future and it could be with music,' so he sent instruments my way.”
Ezidinma continued to develop his musical skills while he attended Williamsport High School.
“At that point in time, I wasn't singing,” he said. “I got senior superlative for best instrumentalist.”
Meanwhile, Ezidinma became involved in music in church settings, where he created connections with other musicians. He attended Towson University as a commuter student and joined a couple of bands in which he played instruments and sang backup vocals. He eventually did some touring and opened for other artists.
Through churches in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Hagerstown, Ezidinma became heavily involved in contemporary worship leadership, which led him more in the direction of singing as well as solo work as a singer-songwriter. He released a project under the pseudonym Lykoh, which is available at:
It was while serving on the worship team at Lifehouse Church in Hagerstown that Ezidinma met Varner, whom he is engaged to marry on Sept. 19.
“I never envisioned a world where I would end up marrying another musician,” he said. “When we became friends, we never talked about doing music together.”
Ezidinma and Varner were both adopted.
“C.J. and I bonded over the strong, deep connections of our life stories,” Varner said.
Though they didn't initially set out to make music together, as they grew in their relationship, it seemed to be the next natural step.
“We wanted to come together to make music with deep meaning and purpose,” Varner said. “Something that was more than a funky beat, but that helped people to feel loved and understood. We share messages to relate to and to reach other people.”
Though Varner was shy growing up, she recalls being interested in music from the time she was around 5.
“My parents had an old guitar in the attic that I would play with. I played it completely wrong, left-handed, strumming, and called myself a musician,” she said laughing.
She grew up listening to country artists like the Dixie Chicks, Zack Turner and Toby Keith.
“I knew every country song, all the words. I'd perform karaoke Shania Twain concerts for my mom,” she said.
As it did for Ezidinma, worship music became an important step in her musical journey. Varner's mother played guitar on the worship team at the church they attended.
“When I was about 11, I started to copy what she did. I would go to practice with her because I wanted to learn,” she said. “I watched and mimicked.”
About a year later, Varner took a nap one Sunday and had a dream.
“I had a dream about playing the piano, and I woke up from my nap and went downstairs and started to play,” she said. “We had an old piano that was out of tune. It was given to us. I just went downstairs and started playing and that was my introduction to music.”
By the time she was just 15, Varner was serving as a worship leader at The Vine Church in Smithsburg. Today, she sings, and plays piano and acoustic guitar.
“I tried drums once, but my foot got tired,” she said. “I tried for about a week and realized it wasn't for me.”
Varner and Ezidinma have released teasers performing together on social media, and they are working on music to release as XACE on iTunes and Spotify.
“This is just the beginning of the journey for us,” Ezidinma said.
They're influenced by the duo Johnnyswim and describe their set for Imagine Hagerstown as a dynamic, folk-pop sound. Covers will include songs by Maroon 5 and Phillip Phillips.
“I think we are just simple people with a combination of folk and pop,” Varner said. “He likes pop, I like deep acoustic things, walkdowns and pretty piano melodies. We just take them and smack them together.”
The couple looks forward to opening for Josh Morningstar.
“He's got some really funky stuff,” Ezidinma said. “He's got a lot of energy and passion behind what he does. It's a privilege for us to set the tone, to warm people up before he takes the stage.”