Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Sons of Bill hails from Charlottesville, Virginia. The band was formed by brothers James, Sam, and Abe Wilson, whose father Bill is a professor of theology and Southern literature at the University of Virginia. The lineup, filled out by Seth Green and Todd Wellons, has honed their sound across four albums. Their latest, Love and Logic, is a huge step forward in the band’s literary and thoughtful brand of Southern rock. Ken Coomer, of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, produced the record, saying it “takes [him] back to some of the creative heights” he found with the latter band. That’s high praise indeed, but Sons of Bill deserves it. They’ve toured the States and Europe relentlessly, working hard to win fans over one at a time both with their original music and with a selection of covers. The songs they choose reflect their wide range of influences. Here’s some of their best cover work.
Sons of Bill – Willin’ (Little Feat cover)
Little Feat songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Van Halen and Garth Brooks. Sons of Bill takes their classic “Willin” and slows it down, turning a rambling, good-timing trucking song into an elegy. Instead of a bouncy, joyous comment on the job, the boys deliver a mournful look back at a life spent on the road. They’re still determined to keep at it, but this one is coming from one of the dark nights of the soul that we all find from time to time.
Sons of Bill – Choices (George Jones cover)
The band pulled this one out as a tribute to George Jones not long after his passing. The crowd is excited, but James asks them to quieten down, making the song a remembrance of one of the great voices of country music. The song is a sobering choice for a tribute, telling of the mistakes made in life and the inability to escape the results of them. The boys wisely stick to a traditional sound, putting Sam’s pedal steel front and center in the instrumentation. The Possum would have been proud.
Sons of Bill – Fade to Black (Metallica cover)
“Fade to Black” is Metallica’s first slower song, making it a ripe pick for a Southern rock band with a need to explore all types of music. The band, along with guest Nick Cordle on co-lead guitar, show that even good Southern boys can shred when they feel the need. James’s forlorn vocals find a way to bridge the gap between the traditional pain heard in many country tunes and the bleak despair present in this particular song, linking the two seemingly disparate genres in a way that feels organic.
Sons of Bill – Finest Worksong (R.E.M. cover)
R.E.M. is a band that Sons of Bill references often. The two acts have quite a bit in common. Both are from the South, and both have a more complicated view of the world than is present in a lot of Southern music. There’s a sense of awareness in both acts’ music. Sons of Bill delivers a driving, droning performance that makes it almost unable to sit still while listening to it, building up a sense of tension broken only at the end by Sam’s guitar heroics.
Sons of Bill – No Surrender (Bruce Springsteen cover)
The lyric “we learned more from a three-minute song than we ever learned in school” is a strange one for sons of a professor, but sometimes it’s the truth. Life happens outside of the classroom, and the true things in life have to be experienced. Bruce Springsteen is one of the great songwriters in American rock, and he has a way of capturing an emotion in a song that makes you believe all you need to complete your education is a stack of records with his name on them. Sons of Bill must have recognized this, because they take the slowed- and stripped-down version of this song that Bruce often performs in concert and make it their own with haunting steel guitar and harmonies, while keeping the feeling of desperation and the us-against-the-world mentality of the original.