At times in life when we don’t have an answer, a parent’s oft-repeated aphorism sometimes comes to mind—whether we like it or not. For Sons of Bill guitarist and vocalist James Wilson, it’s a saying from his father, William Wilson, a retired UVA theology professor: “Never miss out on an opportunity to let the world humble you a little bit.”
This past summer, the world did humble the younger Wilson. Hard. He fell on a champagne glass, severing five tendons and the median nerve in his right hand—a major nerve providing movement and feeling from the hand to the shoulder. He calls the experience a “nightmare” and a “huge setback personally, artistically, professionally.”
“Not only could I not play guitar, but I couldn’t drive, sleep or even properly dress myself,” Wilson says. “Nerve pain can be brutal and I sunk into a pretty serious depression.” He started calling on another motto to get him through the accident’s aftermath.
“Adult life can be a son of a bitch,” he says.
In spite of the nerve damage, Wilson is recovering. Though playing acoustic guitar is still a challenge, he plays his electric guitar every day, and he didn’t let his injury end Sons of Bill’s nearly decade-long streak of playing a holiday show at the Jefferson.
“We’ve played a Christmas show every year the Jefferson has been open,” Wilson says. “It’s a homecoming in so many ways—literally and spiritually. This is home. You only get one.”
Wilson and his Sons of Bill bandmates, Seth Green, Todd Wellons and brothers Sam and Abe have just finished recording a new album this month—three years, three international tours and two cross-country tours after the band released its last album, Love and Logic.
“We toured hard, maybe too hard, for the few years after Love and Logic came out,” Wilson says of the band’s break between records. “It’s different being in a rock band as an adult, so we all took some time to do some grown-up housecleaning while we slowly worked on another record.”
Grateful for the band’s hiatus, Wilson is “deep into” a book he’s wanted to write on William Faulkner “for years,” and Abe is finishing architecture school. Sam has been producing records and touring with his side project band, Me and My Brother, which includes musicians Carl Anderson and Schuyler Fisk.
“We were all so tired,” says Wilson, referencing addictions that crept into the band and were affecting the new album’s recording process. It felt like they had lost the joy of making music. “We needed to rest, we needed to take care of our personal lives, we needed to manage our drinking,” he says. “Once you’re in [a band], it’s so easy to forget why you started making music in the first place. I’m glad we took the time to finish it—we made a record I’m really proud of.”
Wilson thinks the new album is Sons of Bill’s best, though he won’t share much about what’s on it. He says the album features dark, beautiful tunes contrasted against lighthearted moments, and that it’s simpler and more adventurous than previous albums, something the band really loves.
“One of my friends in Nashville described [the new album] as ‘goth-country for the over-educated.’ Not sure that’s totally accurate, and it doesn’t exactly scream dollar signs, but it’s a start,” he says.
With loved ones returning to Charlottesville, it’s a special time of year for Wilson and his family. When he can sneak away, he finds joy in the solemnity of midnight Mass. “‘O Holy Night’ is pretty dear to me,” says Wilson. “‘The weary world rejoices.’ What a perfect sentiment for this time—for any time.”