While playing an album release show at the Southern on June 4, the five members of local amped-up folk-rock outfit Will Overman Band stepped off the stage and into the crowd to perform an acoustic rendition of the song “Ode to Virginia.”
“We plopped down in the middle of the crowd and they formed a circle around us,” recalls frontman Will Overman. “We were all touching and all sweaty, and we were as much a part of the crowd as we were musicians. People were belting the words—I knew they knew our lyrics…but I didn’t know it would go that well. It was glorious,” he says with a wide smile.
Musicians and crowd alike beamed as they sang, “Take me back to Virginia! / Back before I had a name / Lay me in a golden field on a mountainside / Let the blue sky fill my veins / Let the James carry me home / And wash away all my sins / Like an old dogwood I’ll die where I began.”
The bouncy tune, with its fingerpicked guitar and just enough twinkle and twang, is the perfect opener for the Will Overman Band’s eponymous full-length debut, an 11-track love letter to the Commonwealth of Virginia, its landscapes, its people and the stories therein.
“We draw a lot of inspiration from where we’re from, and we love our roots,” says Overman, the band’s primary songwriter, who, inspired by John Prine, The Avett Brothers and other Americana artists with their hearts on their sleeves, picked up the guitar at 17 and began writing songs to work out what he was feeling.
Now 22, Overman continues to find songs through experience, and relies on his bandmates of more than two years—vocalist Brittney Wagner, drummer Christopher Helms, guitarist Daniel McCarthy and bassist J. Wilkerson—to help him bring those stories to life so they resonate with a wide audience.
Earlier this year, the group recorded Will Overman Band with producer and engineer Dave Stipe at Monkeyclaus Recording Studio in Roseland, Virginia. While the band prides itself on its energetic live show, Overman says the group was eager to get into the studio and lay down the tracks they’d been road-testing in venues up and down the East Coast. They also revisit some of the songs featured on their January 2015 EP, Die Where I Began.
The result is a record that glances back at the band’s past while casting a sharp eye toward its future.
Some of the songs on the record, like “Assateague Island,” “Trail Song” and “Son,” have been around for a while. Overman wrote “Son” six or seven years ago, when he was still a teenager, and says he’d lost the drive to play it live, because it no longer felt like an accurate representation. All of that changed in the studio.
Overman says that when Stipe recommended adding pedal steel guitar and starting the song in a different way, it helped him hear the song anew and understand that it’s still relevant—he’s still a son, he’s just moving forward on the journey.
In a Will Overman Band song, even the most mundane things—such as dancing in daisy pants, reading history books and being bit by bugs on Assateague Island—contain great beauty and wonder. The band aims to “give the common story an epic feel” by putting it into poetry and setting it to music, says Overman.
Many of the stories on Will Overman Band are indeed common. The fivesome sings about loving one’s home (“Ode to Virginia”) and wanderlust (“Gravedigger”), about fading romantic relationships (“All I Say”), about first cars and the loss of innocence (“Adventures with Sunny”), and encourages the listener to find deeper meaning in seemingly average experiences.
On “AHQ” and “Fix My Girl,” the band chronicles a not-so-common story: Overman’s girlfriend’s battle with cancer. The story itself is extraordinary and deeply personal, but the feeling is universal: It’s a horrible, devastating thing to watch a loved one suffer and to feel powerless in your ability to help her.
Overman says that listeners are often surprised to find out these two songs, the upbeat “AHQ” in particular, are about cancer. “It’s like The Smiths’ approach, where you put really grim lyrics over a happy melody,” Overman says. With the album release, Overman hopes fans will spend time with the lyrics, listen carefully and discover the songs anew.
And although the album may be finished, it’s only the beginning for the band. “This is in no way a time for relaxation,” says Wagner. “If anything, it makes me want to focus more time on making new music.” Overman agrees. “I’m glad [these songs] are recorded, and we can move on and write a fresh crop of new songs that represent us, as a band, right now.”
Will Overman Band wraps up with “Pilot Mountain,” a song about the bittersweetness of life on the road. “Pilot Mountain watches over me / Like a mother watches her kin / Though she stays while I’m moving on / I know I’ll see her again,” the song begins, echoing the band’s journeys back and forth across the Virginia/North Carolina border. “Is it a sunrise or a Shell sign?” And then, “Sometimes you gotta rock an empty room,” Overman and Wagner sing in wearily amazed unison. But there’s hope in the music and the voices—they’re playing music for an audience, and, for them, there’s nothing better.
The song ends, fittingly, with a jammy vamp-out “and leaves an open mind to everything,” Overman says. “That’s where we are. We’re looking forward, and we know all that we have to do.”