Virginia Rock takes on South Bend

The Center for Ethics and Culture brought some culture to campus by inviting Sons of Bill to give a concert the night of April 10th, but the Virginia rock band also made room for some ethics. Brilliant country songs were punctuated with pronouncements such as “We sold Western civilization for a 3G network,” and the combination only seems strange in retrospect.

Sons of Bill performed their hour and a half set as an “acoustic” trio, without drums and bass. Three sons of Professor of Southern Literature and Philosophical Theology Bill Wilson, who teaches at the University of Virginia, made up the band: James Wilson on rhythm guitar, Sam Wilson on pedal steel and lead guitar, Abe Wilson on keys, and all three sharing vocal duties. The band played about twenty songs, all their own with the exception of a cover of the Cure’s “Pictures of You,” which, to my surprise, fit right in. The acoustic trio format created a unique intimacy between the band and the audience and made some of the songs come alive in a way that they did not on the studio records. The format placed extra emphasis on the vocals, which put a focus on the lyrics and highlighted the band’s best feature, their vocal harmonies. Their kind of lyric-driven country does not typically lend itself to virtuosity, but Sam took a few great solos over the course of the night. Abe’s work on the keys also stood out to me. It seemed unobtrusive at first, but every time I focused on it I realized that it was key to their sound. The band didn’t play a single bad tune, and on a few songs–to namecheck a couple, “Bad Dancer” and “Big Unknown”–the sound and the words, both quite nice on their own, came together perfectly.

The concert itself went almost exactly as you’d expect a rock concert put on by the Center for Ethics and Culture to go: the audience sat in chairs and applauded politely between songs. (I sat in the front row. I need my live music loud.) And, of course, Sons of Bill took questions of varying degrees of pretension from the audience between songs. The less pretentious questions gave rise to hilarious banter between the brothers about, among other things, the matching clothes their father dressed them in and Sam’s teenage love for Metallica. On the other hand, the third or fourth question about what “big ideas” motivate the band prompted James to pause for a bit. “Hope in the face of the void.” That was that. I am sure it was not a typical Sons of Bill concert in what James called a “bonehead rockclub.” The ironic back-and-forth of rock musicians comfortable with an academic audience made for a unique show.

Why care about an alt-country Americana band and their songs about selling Western civilization for a 3G network? The best Americana is not the cheap put-on of most country music on the radio, nor does it revel in the stereotypical stupidity of hicks. The best Americana instead expresses deep truths in a deceptively simple way. One place I know I’ve found it is in “Shenandoah,” for whose refrain of “Away, we’re bound away / Across the wide Missouri” I would trade both a 3G network and most of Western civilization. Rarely have the two fundamental human emotions of love and loss been expressed so simply and so powerfully.

Then consider this: “Have you read the Odyssey / I haven’t read that book in years / How he killed off all her lovers / And he burst into tears”. And this: “Love could be so easy somewhere out in outer space / So out of time, so out of line, so out of place / So I’ll sit here and linger on the same old worn-out page / And we could give the finger to the spirit of the age”. When Sons of Bill sing these lines, they give new words and a new tune to that love and that loss we know so well, and both the words and the tune are beautiful.

Steve Larkin is a Mainer majoring in classics and mathematics, He is currently living out his freshman year of Midwestern exile in Stanford Hall. When not writing he can be found enjoying the musical stylings of Tomas Luis de Victoria and Steely Dan. If you wish to discuss either with him you can contact him at