Sol Driven Train’s music has always been difficult to categorize, and their latest jammy album, Underdog, is no different. There’s a little bit of folk, a little bit of funk, a little bit of world music, and, of course, a whole lot of Sol Driven Train’s signature Charleston charm. It’s no wonder that they can’t stick to a genre when their influences include a wide variety of pop music’s best. “Sometimes I’ll compare our music to artists like Paul Simon, Talking Heads, even Michael Jackson, not that you would hear that in our music exactly,” says singer-guitarist Joel Timmons, noting that Led Zeppelin II and Thriller were his two favorite albums growing up.
But there’s another reason for Sol Driven Train’s unique brand of jam. “Charleston is a port town where there are all these influences — influences from the Caribbean, Europe, even West Africa,” Timmons says. “We like to think of our music as bringing all of these influences into a sound.”
However, Timmons believes that he and his Sol Driven Train bandmates — Ward Buckheister (guitar, trombone, and vocals), Rusty Cole (bass and vocals), Wes Powers (drums), and Russell Clarke (saxophones and vocals) — are simply better at what they do than they have ever been before. “We’ve definitely gotten more proficient,” the singer-guitarist says. “We began as a loose arrangement, an improvisational jam band, and now we’re becoming more focused on songs. We still love stretching out and improvising in live performances, but the albums we’re making now are more song-focused and more concise. We’re trying to tell a story or convey an emotion.”
For over a decade, Timmons and the gang have been big players in the local scene, and it’s evident that Sol Driven Train is not just a collaboration of like-minded musicians, but a band of brothers with an unbreakable bond. The group originally came together shortly after Sol Driven Train’s original lineup graduated from high school, and by Timmons’ estimate, they’ve played over a thousand shows together. Though the lineup has changed over the years, with the departure and replacement of two members, the band members remain close. “It’s like a five-way marriage,” Timmons says with a laugh.
But as we all know, marriage is not always easy. “Just like a family we’re not always perfect,” Timmons says. “It takes work, maintenance, and patience.”
Underdog touches on some of the struggles the band has been through together, specifically on the opening track from which the album gets its name. On it Timmons proclaims, “You’re proving everybody wrong/ You said you wouldn’t last this long/ You said you wouldn’t be this strong/ Yeah, you’re proving everybody wrong.” Timmons says the song was written in honor of fellow band member Buckheister.
“Part of his journey over the past three years has been giving up alcohol,” Timmons says. “This song is specifically about him and his inspiring choice to do that. It has been an amazing transformation to watch.”
In fact, every song on the album is inspired by real-life experiences. “You can hear some of the heartbreak,” says Timmons. “When you make the choice to be an independent artist, you sacrifice a lot of things. We give up stability and a home life.”
So if Underdog is anything, it’s cathartic. “That’s the wonderful thing about songwriting, about poetry or any piece of art,” says Timmons. “Once you write it or put it down or paint it, you share it with the world, and it’s no longer yours. It becomes whatever the listener wants to take from it. It’s a great way to release it.”
A portion of the proceeds from the Sol Driven Train show at the Charleston Music Hall will go to the Jerry Zucker Charleston Ride for Hope, a bicycle race and fundraiser for local cancer charities. Each ticketholder will be given a copy of Underdog at the show.