The full-time bartenders at the Windjammer are ga-ga for Sons of Bill. The last time the young country-rock band performed — a tight, solid set in June with the Hill Country Revue — half the bar staff donned Sons of Bill T-shirts and hollered louder than the small clusters of fans in the audience after every song. Not every outta-town band can boast such local loyalty and support.
"One of the best things about being in a touring band is getting those home-away-from-home places," says lead singer/guitarist James Wilson. "We always enjoy coming into Charleston. The Windjammer is so cool to us, and we really love paying there."
While James and his two older brothers — lead guitarist and lap steel player Sam Wilson and organist/keyboardist Abe Wilson — played in other bands growing up, they've only worked together in this band since forming Sons of Bill in their hometown of Charlottesville, Va., three years ago. All three are, indeed, sons of a musician and prominent University of Virginia professor named Bill Wilson (hence the name).
"My dad was a player, and he played a lot of country and folk music all the time," James says. "To our minds they were just my dad's songs, but they introduced us to some great songs. To me, my pivotal musical moment was when I bought that record Exit 0 by Steve Earle & The Dukes. I felt like I was open to a whole new world. Those early Steve Earle songs, they're great ... he was a hero of mine for a long time."
The rhythm section of bassist Seth Green and drummer Brian Caputo completes the SoB lineup. Fortunately, their story (so far) is devoid of the familiar sibling rivalries and bust-ups of typical rock legend.
"The reason bands fight sometimes is that the egos get the better of them," says James. "That's why a lot of bands get into trouble. But playing with two brothers keeps the egos in check. We all get along really well, you know? We all share the same vision, the same roots, and the same values ... it's a great thing, a really tight unit."
Sons of Bill's independent debut, 2006's A Far Cry From Freedom, sold over 8,000 copies. This year, the band returned to the studio in Santa Clarita, Calif., to record with renowned producer and engineer Jim Scott, who's worked with artists like Wilco, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty. The 12-song One Town Away hit the streets in June.
"Everything I write, I try to make it honest and from the heart," says James. "Our first record is pretty upbeat and more catchy Tom Petty-kinda-rock, whereas this record is consciously more serious. The chance to write about and sing about the life experiences was something I took seriously."
At only 25 years of age, James already writes and sings his lyrics like a man mangled and scarred by emotional life experiences. Beaten, hurt, and perpetually lonesome, his true spirit seems far from defeated.
"We tend to write country songs, while we tend to play like a rock band," says the frontman. "We try to keep it open-ended and allow for things to change," says James. "I think bands love and believe in good songs — more than record labels or publicists. We just try to write the best songs we can, to put together and make an album — as much like the old country and big rock guys did."
No wonder those sentimental Americana-lovin' bartenders embrace this band.