News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: Sons Of Bill
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
Seven years ago, James Wilson moved back home to Charlottesville.
He’d been living out West, attending Deep Springs College on the border of Nevada and California. His two older brothers had left the nest, too. Sam Wilson moved up to Brooklyn and Abe Wilson enrolled at the University of Maryland.
Deep Springs left a deep impression on James. The school was isolated between two mountain ranges, and the nearest city—Bishop, a small burg of less than 2 square miles—was an hour’s drive away. James spent his time studying and writing songs, modeling his music after rootsy troubadours like Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt.
“Out there in the desert,” he said, “I didn’t have a band. All I had was a guitar, so I started making music on my own, taking songwriting more seriously than I ever had before.”
Returning to Charlottesville, James found seasonal work at a local farm and began persuading his older brothers to come home, too. They obliged, drawn back to Charlottesville by their brother’s songs. Together, the three formed Sons of Bill, an Americana band named after their father, University of Virginia professor Bill Wilson.
“There was no conceptual framework, no discussion of what we were going to sound like,” James remembered. “We’re all songwriters, and we’re all different. The challenge was getting all of our perspectives to come together.”
The intervening years have been kind to Sons of Bill, who will play D.C.’s U Street Music Hall on Friday evening and Richmond’s Capital Ale House on Saturday.
They’ve become hometown heroes, capable of selling out large Charlottesville venues like the Jefferson Theater. Music fans outside of Virginia have started to take notice, too. “Sirens”—the band’s third album—charted on the Billboard 200 earlier this year, and the guys will head to Germany after completing an American tour in October.
“We’ve grown in a really slow and natural way,” James noted. “We never wanted to be a band of the moment; we wanted to be a career band, and our touring has mimicked that. We started off in Charlottesville, began playing in Richmond and D.C., expanded to New York and Texas, and so on.”
Even so, Virginia continues to be the band’s home base. After recording their last album in California, Sons of Bill decided to create “Sirens” in Richmond, with David Lowery serving as the producer. They took their time, too, returning to the project whenever gaps arose in their touring schedule.
“I’m a big fan of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven,” James said, name-checking Lowery’s two trend-setting bands. “David is a songwriter and a frontman, but he also knows how to get records to sound good. We wanted ‘Sirens’ to consciously recall a specific era of rock ’n’ roll, back when albums sounded big and clean and hi–fi, without a lot of digital software getting in the way. Dave is from that era, and we knew he’d be on the same page.”
The Wilson brothers were on the same page, too. All three contributed songs to “Sirens,” and all three took turns singing lead.
“It’s a really hard thing to have a band with three singers, all of whom have their own vision for the band,” James admitted. “But we always wanted to be a band. We didn’t want to be one writer with a backing group. That process has taken years, but with ‘Sirens,’ we’ve really arrived at something that’s our own.”
What: Sons of Bill
Where: U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW, Washington; 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7. $10. ustreetmusichall.com
Where: Capital Ale House, 623 E. Main St., Richmond; 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. $10; capitalalehouse.com
Andrew Leahey has also grown in a really slow and natural way.