When we get into someone here at Holler we can be absolutely unbearable - always going on about how unbelievably life changing everything they do is; announcing every tour date like it’s an historic international event; poring over every lyric like we’re code-breaking the Voynich manuscript. Well, get ready, because we are about to become seriously unbearable over Stephen Wilson Jr.
Grunge and country have been quietly hooking up on the side for years, giving each other eyes across the subcultural divide whenever they thought no one was looking. It’s an unlikely love affair that’s been simmering since the early 90s, but it's beginning to boil over into the mainstream.
Whether it was Johnny Cash covering Soundgarden, Sturgill Simpson doing ‘In Bloom’ or The Supersuckers recording a country album with Steve Earle and opening for Waylon Jennings, alt-country has drawn as much from punk bands as it has The Byrds and Gram Parsons. Its pioneers broke through simultaneously with the rise of alternative rock in the early 90s.
Three decades on from Uncle Tupelo’s genre-defining No Depression, a generation that came of age in a post-grunge world is embracing its teenage fondness for flannel shirts and the music that drifted down on the crispy Seattle wind to infuse contemporary country with a very definite “alt” sensibility.
If the true measure of a man is the mixtape he makes you, then Stephen Wilson Jr. is a contradictory and brilliant man indeed. Stephen Wilson Jr. mixes up his love for bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Postal Service with the heartland rock of John Mellencamp and country singers like Willie Nelson and Randy Travis to create a sound that he variously calls “Death Cab for Country”, “Tears for Beers”, “Dallas in Chains” or just “Indie Country for Earthlings”.
If this was a sound that felt “alt” in the early 90s, it’s anything but now. Mainstream country has been reshaped by the success of artists like Chris Stapleton and Cody Jinks, while indie audiences have no trouble lapping up the country leanings of everyone from Kurt Vile and The National to Phoebe Bridgers and Faye Webster.
Further proof if it were needed can be found in Stephen Wilson Jr., who, after recently inking a deal with country behemoths Big Loud, has today released his new Bon Aqua EP into a world that feels primed and ready for his peculiar blend of alt-country and MTV2 indie rock.
Almost always playing a late-70s gut-string acoustic, Wilson’s songs feel like they’re being yanked up from the depths of his soul. Pitched somewhere between Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York and the stadium-ready country rock of Eric Church, the seven-song collection pulls together six previously released songs with the brand new single ‘American Gothic’, featuring last year’s Holler Album of the Year winner Hailey Whitters.
Co-written with Whitters, ‘American Gothic’ is a sludgy slacker-country anthem and a joyous ode to their upbringings.
“Hailey and I met in writing rooms years ago and I’ve always been a big fan,” explains of the collaboration. “Watching her work as a songwriter and flourish as an artist has been a real inspiration. As a fellow cornfield kid, she had this beautiful idea inspired by her favourite Grant Wood painting to showcase parts of the American cultural fabric using nostalgia and the same duality that the painting seems to represent. We ran with it and sang it from the top of our lungs.”
“The first time I heard Stephen Wilson Jr. was at The Basement a few years back and he absolutely blew me away,” Whitters remembers. “His writing, his songs and his live show is next level. He’s one of a kind and this genre is so much for the better with him in it.
Elsewhere on the EP, Wilson tackles domestic violence on the powerful revenge fantasy ‘Holler from the Holler’. Written with Craig Wiseman in the mould of Martina McBride’s ‘Independence Day’ and at least two thirds of Carrie Underwood’s catalogue, it’s a gruesome and graphic depiction of the real-life physical abuse he saw his own mother subjected to by the men who shared her life. Although the murder part is simply a fantasy; a representation of what he thinks would have been a fair outcome for the men who brutalized his mother.
“It’s utterly real,” says 'Independence Day' songwriter Gretchen Peters of the song. “I just believed it from the first chord.” The video includes opening and closing billboards for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE, underscoring the intent behind the piece’s emotional tone.
The opening track on the EP, ‘the devil’, showcases his ease with the kind of existential themes and lyrical imagery that Kurt Cobain or Elliot Smith became "Voices of a Generation" with, while ‘The Beginning’ builds from a gentle enough start into a soaring anthem that sounds like what Coldplay might create if they put on American accents and fully embraced country rock.
Growing up in rural Southern Indiana, Wilson was raised by a single father who was a boxer, and had him boxing from age seven through adulthood as an Indiana State Golden Gloves finalist. A self-taught guitarist, he moved to Nashville to pursue a degree in Microbiology at MTSU, where he started the indie rock band AutoVaughn after finishing his degree. They toured for over five years and Wilson co-wrote songs as lead guitarist until his creative focus turned more to songwriting and singing.
After the band, Wilson relied back on his education where he worked for several years as an R&D scientist at Mars until signing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in Aug 2016. He had songs cut by Caitlyn Smith and Old Dominion, Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, Chase Bryant, Mackenzie Porter, Kameron Marlow, Sixpence None the Richer and Leigh Nash.
Stepping out on his own as an artist, he's released a string of singles that have been quietly bubbling under to widespread critical acclaim from those in the know. Now, he's making a triumphant statement with Bon Aqua.
“Everything starts with good water,” Wilson explained about the title of the EP. “We are made of mostly water. The world is mostly water. As a microbiologist, I used to test water for pharmaceutical companies and everything from shampoo to aspirin to pet food to anything you can think of requires water. Not just any water… good water. I was in charge of making sure the water was good. In and around Bon Aqua, Tennessee is coincidentally where I wrote and conceived most of this EP and filmed most of the videos and visual aspects. Hence the name, it is known for its good water and it only made sense for it to all start there.”
In 2022, Wilson toured with The Cadillac Three, Midland and Brothers Osborne, and is currently on the road supporting Hailey Whitters before joining The Lone Bellow next month and performing at CMA Fest later this year.
We sat down with Stephen Wilson Jr. to talk about growing up in a small town, his new EP and what exactly would be on that mixtape of his.
Where are you from and how did that influence you?
I’m from Southern Indiana/Kentuckiana, a little town called Seymour. It’s where John Mellencamp is from and he had a huge influence on the town and its soundtrack. It’s a blue-collar cornfield town with a lot of religious influence and salt-of-the-earth people with combined histories of hardship. All of these people influenced my early beliefs which comes into light in a good bit of my music. There’s a lot of pain in that dirt.
What did you grow up listening to?
Everything from classic rock, grunge to traditional country and 90s country: Roy Orbison, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Mellencamp; country and classic rock radio; The National, Sunny Day Real Estate, Bloc Party, Nirvana, early Weezer; Johnny Cash, George Jones and Randy Travis.
Tell us a little bit about all the songs on Bon Aqua EP?
These songs are gifts that came along individually in various forms but all are personal on different levels. Nostalgic and biographical. Some came along in dreams and some came along in writing rooms. This was really all the beginning and these songs were a beta-test of sorts to see how all this would fly. Nervous pilot… There were a lot of questions when I started and these songs provided the answers and as well were cathartic for me moving past a lot of personal things. Hence, they were gifts and I am grateful for them.
Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
Royal Albert Hall and The Philippines
What inspires you?
Birds, nature, beer, family and strangers
If you were going to make a mixtape for Holler listeners what songs would be on it?
'Bloodbuzz Ohio' - The National
'Don’t Swallow The Cap' - The National
'Expo 86’ - Deathcab For Cutie
‘The Comedians’ - Roy Orbison
‘I Drove All Night’ - Roy Orbison
‘Clark Gable’ - The Postal Service
‘Promises’ - Randy Travis
‘When the Man Comes Around’ - Johnny Cash
‘Old Timer’ - Willie Nelson
‘Night Life’ - Willie Nelson
‘One Woman Man’ - George Jones
‘The Man In The Station’ - John Martyn
‘Blizzard of 77’ - Nada Surf
‘This Modern Love’ - Bloc Party
‘Helicopter’ - Bloc Party
‘Immigrant Song’ - Led Zeppelin
‘When the Levee Breaks’ - Led Zeppelin
‘Paper in Fire’ - John Mellencamp
‘Weakest Moments’ - John Mellencamp
‘Airbag’ - Radiohead
‘Drive’ - The Cars
‘My Name is Jonas’ - Weezer
‘Cherry Bomb’ - John Mellencamp
‘Head Down’ - Soundgarden
‘Leyenda’ - Andres Segovia
‘Mediterranean Sundance Live’ - Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucía
‘Scentless Apprentice’ - Nirvana
‘On A Plain’ - Nirvana
‘The Rising Tide’ - Sunny Day Real Estate
‘Oceans’ - Pearl Jam
‘Nothingman’ - Pearl Jam
What’s your all time favourite song?
Ugh. Tough one, I guess, ‘Drive’ by The Cars or ‘The Comedians’ by Roy Orbison. I’d let them arm wrestle over it.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
Songwriter, scientist, farmer or all of the above. I was a working microbiologist and food scientist in my former life and hung up my lab coat to become a songwriter which led the way to me becoming an artist. Wouldn’t be a bad back-up plan though if I had to go back. I did enjoy having my own lab. 👨🏻🔬
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
To 1994 before smart phones and tell my young self that it’s gonna be alright, even though AI is gonna ruin everything.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
Edgar Allen Poe
What would be your Spice Girls style nicknames?
What is a spice girl? Paprika sounds like it could be a name.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Boxing, got a decent jab and left hook. Disappearing at parties.
What’s next for you?
Bon Aqua, including 'American Gothic' featuring Hailey Whitters, is out now on Big Loud.
Carousel photos by Sarah Cahill.