Sons of Bill - the family that plays together
Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, and Bill Wilson were all formative influences on one of the hottest bands on the current Americana scene. If the last name isn’t as familiar to you as some of the others might be, don’t worry. Bill Wilson wasn’t in quite the same league as these American folk icons but as the man who started it all rolling for the Sons of Bill, he’s a pretty important figure in this story.
It begins in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Bill Wilson is a professor of theology and literature at the state university. Wilson never sought to make a career in music, although he did have a regular gig in a bluegrass duo at Shaky’s Pizza, a Charlottesville landmark, during his college days, and he made sure his three sons, James, Abe and Sam, took piano lessons from a young age.
“Music was always a big part of Dad’s life and through him it became a big part of our lives too,” says son James. “He was always singing and playing guitar around the house while we were growing up. I don’t remember there being many records at home – a few classical albums, opera, some church music – so unlike a lot of bands our age we didn’t grow up with our parents’ Beatles and Stones records. We’d just hear Dad playing folk songs, country music, blues, bluegrass, hymns, and we didn’t know where he’d got them from. Looking back now there was a lot of Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, the Louvins, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and the like in his repertoire but to us they were just Dad’s songs. So although I had no idea who Lead Belly was when I was growing up, I knew all of the words to Good Night Irene, while most of my friends were listening to Sir Mix-a-lot.”
Professor Wilson’s love of singing rubbed off on the siblings and they all sang together at home and in church. His passion for meaningful songs – James remembers, even at a young age, feeling that his father was involved in something that was important to him rather than just amusing himself when he sang and played guitar – was to stick with his offspring, although it would be some time before they began to work on music together seriously.
“The piano lessons only lasted so long in my case,” says James, “and although Dad gave us all some basic guitar instruction, we gravitated towards different instruments, found our own musical interests and started separate bands in high school. Sam was the only one who went on to study music at a higher level.”
While Sam went on to classical guitar studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia before heading for New York to try and make a career in music, his two brothers stayed in Charlottesville and took religious studies at the university where their father teaches, then headed for further studies in California (James) and Maryland (Abe). The brothers were all playing in bands but when James went to visit Sam in New York in summer 2005, they realised that they were both disillusioned with the music they were playing.
They started singing some of the songs their father had taught them and some new ones that James had written and found that they still really enjoyed making music together. Returning to Charlottesville a few weeks later, they got together with Abe, who was back home and ready to try something. They added Seth Green (bass) and Todd Wellons (drums), both friends they’d grown up with, and by Christmas that year, the Sons of Bill were a going concern.
Like all bands they’ve had their ups and downs. Their second album, One Town Away, was produced with the assistance of ace producer-engineer Jim Scott, whose credits include recordings with Tom Petty, Sting and Wilco, and their third, Sirens, required the assistance of a Kickstarter campaign. They’re motoring now, however, have a new album due soon and are currently on their first European tour, which brings them to Scotland this weekend for two shows with their Blue Rose Records labelmates, Scottish country-rockers the Wynntown Marshals.
“Everything’s feeling right,” says James. “We’ve written a lot of the songs from our forthcoming album together and it feels like we’re a family as much as a band right now. Making music, whether it’s sad or defiant or silly or angry, is always in some way an act of hope and I know that music helps each of us through every single day. So if we can do the same thing for other people in whatever small way, then we're doing our job.”
Sons of Bill & The Wynntown Marshals play Stereo, Glasgow on Sunday, March 9 and the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh on Monday, March 10.
From The Herald, March 5, 2014.