Joel Timmons knew that something was not right. Something was going wrong with his body.
The year was 2004, and Timmons, the bandleader for Sol Driven Train, had volunteered to work at a farm in India. “I began to develop some troubling symptoms,” Timmons says. “Lethargy, weakness, and tingling hands and feet.”
The symptoms rapidly progressed over a few days. Timmons could no longer walk. “The next day, I was on a plane, crossing the Himalayas, and checking into a hospital,” he says.
He was evacuated to New Delhi and later diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder where the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. His condition worsened to the point that he needed a ventilator and feeding tubes. He spent seven weeks in that hospital far, far away from home.
“I was in a miserable state — mentally lucid, but unable to move my body,” says Timmons, who was in India with family and friends. “I took refuge in an mp3 player, my mother’s reading of Huckleberry Finn, and intravenous sedatives. Over time, I began to slowly improve, regaining movement in my fingers first. I worked with a physical therapist to lift my arms, then to sit up, and finally to stand. The first time I stood up, I was horrified at my reflection in the mirror. My hospital clothes hung from my emaciated frame.”
Timmons was 118 pounds when he was released. Wheelchair-bound, he began a year of rigorous physical therapy. A small but noticeable indention on his throat from a tracheotomy is the only physical scar that’s left from the ordeal.
“The trauma of a tracheotomy had turned my voice into a scratchy croak, and I lacked the dexterity and strength to play the guitar,” Timmons says. “I remember going to see Sol Driven Train at Art’s Bar while I was still in a wheelchair. What an experience it was to hear them singing my songs back at me with such energy and love. I knew then that music was going to be a huge part of my emotional and spiritual recovery.”
During his recovery, Timmons sat in with the band from time to time. By the spring of 2005, he started playing full shows again.
Nowadays, their reputation for positivity and fun vibes couldn’t be stronger. “We get to experience freedom and joy on a daily basis,” Timmons says of his bandmates. “We get to express ourselves and make our own decisions. And it’s really nice that the guys I’m beholden to are my best friends.”
Timmons has been with Sol Driven Train from the beginning. With their egalitarian philosophy, the five-piece dismisses the notion of having an official frontman, but without Timmons’ rock-solid dedication to the group and his impressive sense of determination to lead them through financial hardships, rocky relationships, and mechanical meltdowns, the band wouldn’t be together today.
“I feel like I’ve matured with little sidesteps,” says Timmons. “Some friends say they’ve seen a new confidence in me and the band over the last year or two. I believe it comes from playing lots of shows and recording a lot in a studio. Being comfortable in the ensemble and in with what everyone’s going to do on stage is most important.”
Timmons, sax player/singer Russell Clarke, and singer/guitarist/trombonist Ward Buckheister (with whom Timmons plays in a side duo called Hit or Miss) have been at the band’s core since their earliest shows. In 2003, they independently released a debut titled Churning Burlward, and devoting all their energy and time to touring, networking, and honing their music.
By 2005, after Timmons’ recovery, the bandmates began residing in two houses on Folly Beach in a semi-communal situation. Bassist Davis Buckheister stepped aside amicably to pursue goals with his family. The band’s sound man, Rusty Cole, joined as Buckheister’s replacement. Around that time, co-founding member Phill Eason and his wife had two children, which put a strain on the time he could commit to playing drums in the band.
“Phill was the de facto leader of the band, in my eyes,” says Timmons. “It was heartbreaking. He was the coach who held everybody together. He was diplomatic. He was a naturally charismatic guy. I was very close to just quitting.”
At that point, Timmons had to decide whether to rededicate himself to Sol Driven Train or bow out. Fortunately, the band landed a solid new drummer in Wes Powers. They picked up the pace, booked massive tours, and wrote and recorded piles of new material.
“I think we all got better at being a band,” says Timmons. “Our schedule became more intense. These days, we focus on accomplishing our goals while having a good time. We’ve grown closer as friends, too, especially through the downs. We’ve learned about maintaining a balance in everything. Everyone’s roles are better defined than before. I’ve been more and more pleased with the way we’re all playing and the kinds of gigs we’ve been getting.”
This fall, Timmons looks forward to pushing the band’s latest disc Watermelon at club gigs and festivals. While he continually strives for self-improvement, his level of confidence and joy seems higher than usual.
“The recordings are really crucial,” says Timmons. “That’s the stuff my kids are going to hear. Those are pretty good indicators of success. I want to be able to write good songs. I want to be honest about where I am and document this whole process in some kind of meaningful way. I love it and I hate it. I always see room for improvement. I want to write better songs, be a better player, and be a better singer. Those are the things that are going to keep me going.”