Rock and Reprise.net
Sam Wilson may not be that well known outside of Charlottesville VA, but that is about to change for two major reasons. First, the release of Green Gates, a very impressive solo effort (actually, with the Sam Wilson Band), which should garner him critical praise for his on-the-fringe mixture of pop and semi-prog rock. Second, the impending release of the second album, One Town Away, by Sons of Bill, an alt.country outfit featuring Sam and two of his brothers, James and Abe (alongside Seth Green and Brian Caputo). It is a one-two punch for which most musicians would kill. It could be the one-two punch which lands Sam Wilson--- and the Sons of Bill--- in the big leagues.
Musicians like Wilson don't just happen. Even the occasional prodigy pays his or her dues. What seems to the layman an easy gig involves countless hours and days and months and maybe even years of learning not only instruments but music. What to us is a lazy afternoon shagging tunes to them can be work. In Wilson's case, there is no 'can be' to it. Enjoyable work, maybe, but work nonetheless. Not a problem for him, though. He was born to it.
“I'm the eldest of six,” he said in a recent interview. “My dad raised us to work really hard. He's a university professor, but he's also a great finger-picker kind of in the style of Tom Rush or Townes Van Zandt. He taught us to work hard, be true to ourselves, to make our own dreams happen, that we can't expect them to just fall in our laps. We all have a pretty good attitude and play and sing, so it's a pretty exciting time.”
Not that long ago, Wilson was in New York City, working the rock band circuit. Gigs, plentiful though they seemed to be, were not always plentiful enough to pay rent and eat. After a short time, he returned to Charlottesville, not really disillusioned but definitely more practical. He turned toward his brothers, found the attachment musically as strong as ever, and helped found the Sons of Bill.
“We all come from a country folk background, so we have that music in our blood,” Wilson explained, the implication being that Sons of Bill was not put together, but just happened. Non-brothers Green and Caputo fell into step seamlessly and the rest is history.
That history is more involved that one would think, though. Talking with Wilson is like getting the audio from a documentary--- fascinating, but when you really think about what happened, a bit exhausting.
For instance, when things began happening, booking became a pain, so they looked for an agent. Or, rather, an agent found them.
“We have an awesome booking agent named Aaron Tannenbaum out of Paradigm, which used to be called Monterey Peninsula. He's out of Nashville and about my age, 28 or so. He has a really cool philosophy. He doesn't just throw us out on the road. He makes sure that the shows we are playing are smart shows. So many bands we've been on the road with--- they're great bands, but their labels or their agencies just throw them out on the road for two months at a time headlining and they play to empty rooms. That has to be tough. We've done that and we showed up to play, but if it happens over and over again, it's going to wear on you no matter what.
“Aaron found us a long time ago. Somehow he got our press kit and called us before we had management. He said, if you want to work with us, you have to have management, so we signed with Red Light. He signed with us shortly thereafter and it's been good.”
It's been uphill ever since. In 2006, Sons of Bill's first album (A Far Cry From Freedom) hit the streets. More than anything, it gave them something more to promote the band than word of mouth, on which their success had relied. A little airplay, some good bookings and Sons of Bill were on their way.
Through the Green Gates...
In the meantime, Sam had this portfolio of original songs.
“When I was in NYC, I started to write all these songs which didn't fit into any of the bands I was playing in. I'd only been a sideman and had never led my own group and what I was doing, both musically and lyrically, just didn't fit. But I just kept writing. Some of the songs eventually fit into the Sons of Bill (a couple were recorded for A Far Cry From Freedom) and the others I just salted away. Then when I started getting together with Brian Chenault and Brian Caputo, we worked up some of the tunes and got a band going.
“I financed Green Gates myself, so I couldn't get it done in one fell swoop. I laid down the basic tracks for Green Gates with Chenault, Caputo, a keyboard player named Wells Hanley and a bass player, Darrell Muller. Then, I left the country for a month with the Sons of Bill (The Pacific Rim Tour) and when I got back, had to make more money before I could go back into the studio. When I went back in, I worked overdubbing parts and really crafting the songs--- you know, getting the sound just right. I would have loved to have been able to track a lot of it live, but I was doing it in a small home studio. It was a lot of work, layering all of the overdubs and getting the vocals, guitars and keys right, but finances are the real reason it took so long.
“I found a guy, a local artist, who took the photo on the front cover, then got Andrew Markowitz to take the photo of me. I got a really good mixing engineer and a really good mastering engineer. Then I had to pay for replication. I did most of it by myself, just to save money.
“When we play, I use a similar lineup. I substitute bass players a bit because Darrell plays with Old School Freight Train which is on the road a lot, so I sometimes use Randall Pharr from Richmond who has been a good friend. And I don't use keys much live. I try to keep it small--- just a quartet.
“I'm really proud of Green Gates. I think I've grown as a songwriter and as a singer, but even if I don't get to play those songs a lot, they still carry a lot of potency for me. The songs I'm writing now are different, but I think that's good. The songs all seem to fit. Some are more three, four, five chords, simple and rock-based while others are more dreamy pop music. It's just a matter of balancing them. I'm really psyched, actually.”
Only One Town Away...
“We've come a long way,” admits Wilson when talking of the Sons of Bill. “I'm really proud of the first album, but One Town Away was produced by a guy named Jim Scott, who has been in the business a long time and has worked with Tom Petty, Whiskeytown and the Foo Fighters, among others. His named kept popping up on records that I really liked, so I sent him some pre-production demos. He liked them, so we worked it out. We flew out to California and tracked the album in like ten days.
“We're going to release it independently right now and try to recoup some money by selling it on the road. It's tough with labels. The deals aren't very good. They take most of the money that you make on the road and on merchandise and you don't make much on the sales of the CDs. You do get an advance, but... Of course, there are advantages. They have publicists and radio promoters and any advance can be applied to touring support. And they have distribution. If we do end up signing, we want it to be because it's a good career decision and not just because we're desperate.
“You know, it's easy for people to think that we are more successful than we actually are. We're signed to management, we tour, we sell out venues. But we work really, really hard and we're still struggling in the same ways that all musicians are. It's funny, because you want to get to that next level and then when you get to it, you realize that you have all that much more work to do. I remember three years ago thinking, God, if we could just open for Shooter Jennings or Robert Earl Keen, we'd be set. Now, we're there, and we're still struggling and still trying to make it work.”
Struggles, though, are what makes the world of music go 'round. When One Town Away is ready, they will hit the road in earnest, spreading the joy.
“We're going on a month-long tour with Reckless Kelly this Spring. We've toured with them before and their fan base really seems to like us.”
One month with Reckless Kelly, another with some other band, yet another with another, not to mention the individual gigs one must play to keep fans happy. Talking with Wilson, you get the feeling that it keeps the band happy as well. It has been a long winter for every Son of Bill. One can only imagine what this year will bring. If someone knows a number in Vegas, let me know. I could use some cash. My money's on breakout.
These are quotes from the cutting room floor. If I was a better writer, I could find a way to work these in. Then again, if I was a better writer, I might be able to make money doing it. Let us call this, Addendum--- Words of Wisdom from Sam Wilson.
On Charlottesville--- “I feel pretty connected. I get to play with a really good songwriter named Shannon Worrell. She had a career about ten years ago and then stopped to have a family. She's just recently gotten back into it and doesn't perform much, but hopefully we'll have our opportunities.”
On focus--- “Right now, it's important for me to be able to make good albums and play good live shows. I'm still honing my skills and it's hard to do because I have so many interests. I love bluegrass, I love jazz, I love rockabilly, but at this point it's more important I think to focus on my songs--- on making albums and creating moments, which is really the hardest thing to do, in my opinion.”
On songwriting--- “Every writer goes through writer's block. I just try to not get discouraged. So far, every time I've been blocked, a cool idea has popped up. You just have to work hard. Some people think that songwriting is this magical thing that just comes to you. Part of it is magical, but a lot of it is really hard work.”
The Wilson Philosophy--- “Sometimes people say why should I pay you? This is what you love to do. They don't realize that this is how we make our living. In order to make this reality, it takes an intensive amount of work, just like anything. It can be frustrating, but I'm trying to not focus on negatives. I'm pretty happy right now because I know that for every frustration, there is a good thing. I have a good vision of the future and that in itself is exciting. Realize, no matter how much support you get from booking agents and management and the like, it is up to you to make it happen. I think getting caught up in the perception that the music industry is at a rough point or people aren't buying enough music--- it may be true, but all I can control is what I'm doing and be confident in that.”
On Green Gates (the track)--- “Brian Chenault plays the role in my band that I do in many of the other bands I play in, which is that of lead guitar player. On Green Gates, he's the first solo after the first chorus. Then I play the first solo at the end, he takes a lead and I finish it out.”
I include the last as a public service, provided on a need to know basis. If you didn't need to know, you should have stopped reading a long time ago.
Frank O. Gutch Jr.