When Sons of Bill played the Jefferson Theater for Christmas 2017, it was one of only a few times in the last two years that the Americana gurus had held a public concert. But there they were in early April—James, Abe and Sam, the three Wilson brothers who make up the Sons of Bill core—setting up in South Bend, Indiana, to play an intimate acoustic show highlighting the group’s forthcoming record, Oh God Ma’am.
What were they doing in a small post-industrial town an hour and half outside Chicago?
It turns out Sons of Bill has a rabid following in a pocket of the University of Notre Dame’s mostly Catholic faculty. The brothers were booked by Patrick Deneen, a political science professor and director of the university’s Center for Ethics and Culture.
“We find [the band’s] music to be both of the highest intellectual order as well as the most viscerally affecting,” Deneen says. “It’s a band that comes from a place and a tradition, and far from running from those roots, extols and revels in them.”
Deneen and his colleagues are an uncanny example of the type of national following—organic, serendipitous, spontaneous—Sons of Bill has been trying to cultivate beyond its regional stronghold for the past half decade.
Three and a half years ago, when the band was in the midst of its Love and Logic tour, the brothers’ goals were far-reaching. The group members had run the most extensive national tour of their careers and were set to go international. They didn’t know what response would be out there, but they wanted to tap into it.
“When you’re a grassroots band, you never know if…anyone knows anything about you,” bass player Seth Green said at the time.
Turns out the fans were there. Megastardom was not. The tour was successful by most measures, but as Sons of Bill looks to promote Oh God Ma’am, it’s more or less where it’s always been in terms of popularity.
“We went so hard and pushed everybody,” guitarist and vocalist James Wilson says. “It all went great, but it’s expensive to be in a band. There’s no easy commercial avenue to success. So afterwards, [some of the] guys had to raise their hands and step away.”
The Wilsons know that the difference between being well-liked and being household names can come down to luck. But Sons of Bill also hit some snags. A serious injury to James’ hand slowed things—he cut five tendons, and some doctors said his music career was over.
Along with the injury, James says he and his bandmates have faced down some drinking issues since completing their Love and Logic touring.
“You start off drinking to party, and then you continue to drink for the anxiety,” he says. “Things sort of spiraled.”
Finally, the follow-up album is here, a 10-song LP to be released June 29. Love and Logic producer (and former Wilco drummer) Ken Coomer is gone; Oh God Ma’am is self-produced, with assistance from a few indie engineering stars: Phil Ek (Shins, Fleet Foxes) worked with the band in Seattle, Sean Sullivan (Sturgill Simpson) provided producing chops in Nashville, and Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) did the mixing.
“Love and Logic dismantled everything in a great way. This album is more focused and intentional,” James says. “I think it is uniquely us. I don’t think it sounds like anybody.”
James admits the result is a more inside-the-box record. It’s sparser, more straightforward and lacks the sonic acrobatics Coomer pushed.
Green is no longer with the band, having moved on to spend more time with his family. Joe Dickey joins the Wilsons to play bass and Todd Wellons remains at the drum kit.
Another thing that’s still around for this record is SOB’s knack for combining touching confessionals with world-weary human condition observations.
“Just a fragile apparition of the person that I once met,” James sings on “Easier.” “Seemed like the world could see the skeleton beneath the skin / Another puritan who never lost the taste for sin.”
They’re Abe’s words and ostensibly about a lover, but one can’t help but recognize the Wilson brothers themselves in the characterization. And James says the album is indeed highly personal and introverted. “It scratches the spiritual scabs of the contemporary moment a little,” he says.
Sons of Bill launches a somewhat conservative Oh God Ma’am tour on June 22, that includes an August 2 date at the Jefferson, but has more international than domestic shows scheduled for now.
James says his ambitions are somewhat conservative this time, as well. “You just continue to survive and make music,” he says. “On the Love and Logic tour, we were playing sold-out shows in London. For a little kid, that would have been the dream happening.”
Dreams, it turns out, can change.