The Sons of Bill: An Entire Family's Musical Agenda, the Secular and the Metaphysical
Some ten years ago, two brothers took their guitars to an open mic in Charlottesville, VA, the cozy college town of the University of Virginia. On impulse, the brothers introduced themselves as the sons of Bill, which they are, sons of Bill Wilson, a professor (now emeritus) of theology (which influence often enters their works) and southern literature, as well as a performer of traditional American roots music himself. Soon thereafter, brothers James and Abe Wilson used the impromptu branding from that open mic night, contacted brother Sam, then working jazz gigs in Manhattan and long-time friends Seth Green (bass)and Todd Wellons (drums), and formed the band, Sons of Bill. They’ve never looked back.
They’ve never looked back, going on to complete multiple loops of the U.S. touring and embarking on several European tours, where they sell out before they stamp their passports. Now, they are scratching at the elusive doors of fame. But, they’ve made it clear, if it does happen, they will do it their way.
Following their own instincts and those of their new producer, they’ve moved from mostly James-driven, often-brooding country ballads to a mix of James’ now-ranging songs, Sam’s emotive narratives, and, perhaps most of all, Abe’s explorations into the cosmos within a widening melodic range that owes some credit to British rock.
As an avid listener and a guitar player myself, my excited listening to their more recent, ground-breaking albums Sirens , followed last year by their major work so far, Love & Logic, led me back to give a listen again to the Sons’ preceding albums and finding there, too, a brilliance I’d missed.
Now, when I pull out my guitar, one of the songs I’m most likely to play and sing is James’ much earlier Charleston, a traditional, country-style, bluesy drinkin’, heart-broken (with a clever stroke of dark humor) song, as I am to play Abe’s shocky, serial arsonist ballad, Santa Ana Winds, from Sirens. My early infatuation on hearing them at Norfolk, Virginia’s then indy music series at the historic Attucks Theatre, had returned and now included their entire body of work.
A Family Affair
It’s a family affair for the Wilsons. There are six siblings. The youngest brother, Luke, has a bluegrass band of his own, Gallatin Canyon, and helps the brothers out at regional gigs. One of their sisters sings; and she and Luke perform each year in the annual Christmas party and concert that the Sons of Bill sponsor at the historic local concert hall, the Jefferson, along with friends the likes of the David Wax Museum and BJ Barham of American Aquarium. Mom Barabara Braunstein Wilson is a dermatologist at the University of Virginia, a great cook by all accounts, and helps keep up the band’s Facebook and Web presences. I’ve seen her sell “merch” too when no-else was available. Dad still sings too, usually a duet with eldest brother, James, at the holiday show. Harmonies are as comfortable in this family as their blue jeans (or in Bill’s case, impeccable suit and signature bow tie), as rooted as their familial genes.
Early Influences – Riding the Metaphysical
Theology, like the traditional country music they grew up with, is never far from the brothers’ side, from James’s early Metaphysical Gingham Gown, bringing an adolescent crush into the realm of alternate realities and cosmic reward, to Abe’s recent The Big Unknown. The later song explores just that, the “unknown” Abe’s protagonist “settles into” after “flying high above the human race.”
The song begins: Turn south on Highway 1, chase down a lazy sun again. Flying high above the human race, knowing well you’ll never find a place to land. Lighting up around 7th Street, be sure to keep it way out of sight. Settle into the big unknown tonight. The Big Unknown is the opening song of Love and Logic, and it opens a metaphysical door into the rich, dreamlike interiors of the album’s songs. These appear to be, in large part, thematically connected, lyrical meditations on the suicide at an early age of singer Chris Bell of the 70s group Big Star.
The short, beautifully written song is wrapped in as lovely a little melody as you’re likely to find. When I saw SOB this winter at a recently opened, intimate bistro here in Norfolk, VA, the stage lights weren’t working properly. Much of the show was in candlelit dark. In the momentous opening guitar strains of The Big Unknown, chills ran up my spine as James intoned, in the flickering light, Turn south on Highway 1, chase down a lazy sun again. The Sons of Bill were about to ride again, through the cosmos and back. I had gotten to know Bill a bit by then. I emailed him excitedly by phone that The Great Unknown was about to begin, and he wrote back that he hoped I would enjoy the show.
In Brand New Paradigm, Abe, in a song co-written with Sam, contemplates the secular life: The world will keep on turning without you burning out the gears, Seconds still collecting into just another year, No need for you to pay such close attention all the time, Quit passing on the left, let this world go passing by and by. It ends with the line, I’m only waiting for a whole new state of mind, a brand new paradigm. And, who, I ask, writes a song, especially for a rock- and- roll audience, about paradigms? Well, Abe does. The Sons break rules we didn’t know were there, and audiences seem to love it.
In another couple of takes on the spiritual from earlier CDs, James has a rollicking number in A Far Cry from Freedom, where in the song Roll on Jordan, the narrator sings, And, they think they’re closer to Heaven, Lord, but that is far from true. You gotta take that ride down the River of Jordan. See what a boy from Galilee can do. In perfect pitch for a country Jesus, James adds in the chorus: And I say, “hey, ho, let it go, you’re either gonna die young, or you’re gonna die old. And go down to the river where the waters flow, and, like a southbound train, it’s gonna lead you. Let that Bible belt holy roll, I got a Baptist choir singing in my soul, singin’ “roll on Jordan, roll.”
In Metaphysical Gingham Gown, he writes two of the best stanzas of verse you’ll ever hear, In that lonely space between dust and your soul, You cry like a baby while your mind’s growin’ old, And your heart begs the question, but you never ask why, just love while you can and learn how to die. But, sometimes a girl takes the ache from your bones, makes you forget that you die all alone. So I hold her hand until Jesus comes round, trade the dress in for wings, but he wears the crown. Wow. Some of this lyrical brilliance is easy to miss on superficial hearing, which is a shame. Musically, many of the songs carry a rich, major chord-like resonance, even when the subject , and key, are sad or ominous.
Into the Secular, the Brilliance Remains
Back in the secular realm, there’s the song, Joey’s Arm, which goes: Joey’s arm has two tattoos, the stars and bars and “born to lose.” With glassy eyes, he waits for rain, Says it reminds him of his wedding day. It’s a letter-perfect portrait of a man through his tattoos and their emotive hieroglyphs. Or, consider two other evocations of Southern place. First, there’s Savannah: Just smell the sweet, soft southern smell of magnolia. And hear the wind, it’s calling your name. And, just another broken heart lost in Georgia and falling like the sweet Georgia rain. And, in the song, Charleston : I think I’ll go down to Charleston and get drunk on the battery, and stroll up and down King Street, and find myself a queen, and take her down to the ocean and watch as the waves roll in, And build a castle in the sand, And never come home to you. Then, later, he admits his reality: I’m standin’ here in Richmond in the rain. Yeah, she threw me out again ‘cause I spent all my pay on booze.
As literate as the songs are, it comes as no surprise that James has taught a workshop on William Faulkner’s work, yet another connection to his father’s passions, in this case Southern literature. I’ve heard also from a member of drummer Todd Wellon’s family that James is officiating (or has officiated) at Todd’s wedding at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming this summer.
Returning to the world of Love and Logic, the album takes a turn toward Palestine, in another nod to theological history, in Sam’s haunting and lovely, On the Road to Canaan, wherein he describes the lonely, long night driving from gig to gig through Midwestern wheat fields at a time when his wife, Alana Levinson-LaBrosse, with whom he co-wrote this song, was teaching in Iraq. When I saw him at the gig in December, Sam told me that wife was touring with the band (though she wasn’t there that night). Appropriately, he sings Canaan on the album with lovely female accompaniment: It’s dark gold out the window and still the wheat grows. It’s midnight in Nebraska, we’re pushing on towards home. I belong to you darling, and ain’t that enough. It’s a long road to Canaan, but glory’s always rough.
As a published and awarded poet myself, and a writer most of my longish life, I am consistently humbled by the lyrics, such as these, of Charlottesville’s Sons of Bill. Appropriately, the imagined journey to the Biblical Canaan, fraught with frustration and need for courage, is in a land whose very existence (reality) was challenged.
The brothers seem to put egos aside when it comes to the business of the songs they’re committed to, with James saying in a 2014 interview in the on-line publication, Bright Young Things:
Abe has stepped up to the plate as really the main writer on this record, rather than me. I co-wrote some songs with him, and I’ve got my own songs on there too, but in a lot of ways this record was just a big letting go. It was letting go of what we thought the industry needed to hear. It was letting go of what we thought our roles in the band were. It was letting go of what we thought our fans wanted to hear. … It was also me letting go of the band. When we made “Sirens,” I had a tyrannical death grip on the band. I thought that the whole world was out to destroy my unravished bride of quietude. And I ended up making the record worse, because I couldn’t let go of the production thing.
Changes and Challenges
Love and Logic was different from earlier work, James continued, in large part due to the guidance, support, and contribution of Ken Coomer, the record’s distinguished producer (Steve Earle, Emmy Lou Harris, etc.) and the first drummer of the iconic rock band, Wilco. In the BYT interview, James says that Coomer told them not to think about the radio or their old records, but to instead look at each of the songs one by one, then try to go in there and make something that we all love.
About that record, James continued, It’s a grower record. It’s not a first listen record … and added, if I hear the phrase “make it pop” one more time, I’m going to drive into oncoming traffic.
In some ways, Sirens, the album preceding Love andLogic , opened the way for it with such off the wall, yet powerful songs as Abe’s Santa Ana Winds. The song deals with an imagined arsonist who sets the Santa Ana area of California on fire. Ironically, when the song is played loud on electric instruments as the band usually does, the song has an anthemic quality, which I find very unsettling, yet powerful. One has to realize that, while the feelings of achievement, passion, and rebel accomplishment are in the song, in the misguided narrator, there is also the result of his actions, which is great tragedy, the loss of property, wilderness, and human life, ultimately an empty gesture devoid of meaning except for the pain and waste.
On the rare occasions they perform the Santa Ana Winds on acoustic instruments, it has a different feel that more clearly acknowledges the loss and grief occasioned by the acts of the arsonist. That having been said, the song is one of my favorites. The lyric goes: There’s no skating by, we’re all gonna die, no matter what the plastic surgeon told ya. So Karma be the judge, she don’t hold a grudge, Or does she need a little helping hand. … Honey, let me in, Santa Ana Winds, are going straight to my head. And, when the sun comes up, there won’t be no tomorrow in the valley of the dead, in the valley of the dead.
“Exquisite,” said the Father. Again, Secular and Sacred
The secular: Love and Logic was released last Fall, the culmination of a Pledge Music fund drive celebrated at a festive, crowded release party/concert at the Jefferson. A quiet highlight of the album, James’s Fishing Song is a “let’s go fishing” song in a seemingly minor key. It’s a quiet, moving song about the peaceful, often solitary, act of fishing. The song avoids and perhaps pushes back at the cliché C&W songs that have proliferated about the same subject. He sings: I want to go fishing. I want to feel the sunshine, and I want Heaven and Hell to disappear as I cast a line. Drift away like the burdens on this heart of mine. I want to go fishing. I want to go fishing.
The sacred: Abe’s Lost in the Cosmos (Song for Chris Bell) is a song once again in the realm of the spirit: Dangerous and desperate and young. Fixing your eyes on the distant horizon and waiting for dawn, for the sun to shine on. Something so pure and so bright, you caught it in glimpses but never could catch it, the harder you try, it’s still passing you by. But the farther and farther you crawl, bringing it home don’t make no sense at all, Seeking your way from the lines lying under the snowfall.
Abe has a particular knack for the fantastic and the commonplace, and the language and melodic choices he makes are, to borrow a word from their father, exquisite. They affect me in a profound way.
At one of the Sons’ Christmas celebration concerts, Bill Wilson told me that the band had all but completed a new album and that he’d heard it in the studio earlier that day. I asked him about it, and he said one word, Exquisite. I thought it was an unusual choice of words, but likely one full of meaning. It was. And it is … exquisite. The sons of Bill Wilson wouldn’t settle for less.