High Hopes: Sons Of Bill

Sons Of Bill remind you how rich and deep Americana can be. Formed in 2005, their fourth album, Love And Logic, is steeped in the sound of forebears such as REM and Wilco. The latter’s ex-drummer Ken Coomer produced, helping create a sound where steel guitars and synths ring out, as do the unusually crafted and haunting lyrics, shared between Charlottesville, Virginia brothers Abe, Sam and James Wilson.

After their last album, 2012’s Sirens, a minor US hit, Sons Of Bill left their big-time label and management behind. Many of the new songs are accordingly about not grasping for success, but instead going with the flow.

Ken Coomer’s time in Wilco, making several sometimes fraught albums, helped Sons Of Bill see the wood for the trees. “Ken had been in a band that went through serious growing pains, and so he helped us navigate the way without killing each other,” says frontman James Wilson. The wider example of bands like Wilco also helped. “With Wilco there was an ethos about pushing yourself from record to record. REM was a big influence too. It’s all about honing in and being more yourself.”

The Bill these brothers are sons of is William Wilson, a professor of theology and literature. Also an amateur singer and guitarist, Wilson Snr’s musical example was fundamental. “He’d get up early every morning and play,” Wilson explains. “Sometimes we would wake up with him. Learning murder ballads when you’re eight – that stuff sticks with you.” Living in an era where billions of songs are on tap, it sounds like a preciously antique way of finding music. “Yeah, my dad was certainly from that [60s folk revival] era.”

The Wilson family home had portraits of Confederate soldiers on the walls. But Sons Of Bill’s irreverent attitude to Southern tradition is shown by James’s song Bad Dancer, which name-checks Confederate General Robert E Lee and REM. “That was the spirit of this record,” Wilson laughs. “Part of me was thinking, ‘We can’t start that song with a synth and a banjo.’ But why can’t we? Or REM and RE Lee – it’s me!”

Love And Logic’s final track, Hymnsong, includes the lines: ‘We’re convinced that there’s a cadence to the murmurs in the dark/rapt in patient arbitration between our weary head and heart.’ Those are some fancy words for rock’n’roll.

“We don’t strive to be a ‘literate’ band,” Wilson says. “But I grew up writing poetry, reading [American novelist, William] Faulkner and studying Latin. We grew up in a literate household. And so much of surviving in this Spotify world, where everything’s on tap, is that you’ve got to have something you want to stand up and say, every night. Hymnsong is about the unspoken theme of the whole record – that sometimes losing pretty badly, to the point where you’ve got nothing, is the only place hope can come from.”

Love And Logic is out now via Thirty Tigers.


“Big Star is a band that we discovered by working our way backwards through REM and The Replacements,” says James Wilson. “The story of their co-leader Chris Bell [who died in a car crash in 1978] is so tragic. The fire burned too hot and he tried to make sense of it with music and religion, and in the end it beat him.”

Nick Hasted

Nick Hasted writes about film, music, books and comics for Classic Rock, The Independent, Uncut, Jazzwise and The Arts Desk. He has published three books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), and Jack White: How He Built An Empire From The Blues (2016).