Greensboro-based folk-rock band focuses on uplift and inspiration
Some people make music because they have dreams of stardom. Some people make music just for the fun of it, without the expectation of much beyond the pleasure of hanging out with friends, the joy of playing and satisfaction of telling stories that people can relate to. The Billyfolks are that second type. They’re a Greensboro-based folk-rock band that formed when the members of the group all were studying at Greensboro College.
The core members of the band were all friends as teenagers at Southeast Guilford High School. I spoke with Jeff Wysosky, the singer and one of the group’s founding members, last week by phone from his home in Greensboro. The Billyfolks play a show with Chuck Mountain on Dec. 13 at the Blind Tiger.
Wysosky said that he and the other core Billyfolks members played in or did sound with the school band, and they shared an interest in the folk-rock Americana of artists like the Avett Brothers as well as the broad jammy appeal of the Dave Matthews Band. Most of the members of the Billyfolks had a background in playing or working with praise bands at their respective churches, and that filtered into the music as well.
The band released its third record, Passing Tides & Lullabies, last year. If the Billyfolks started out leaning toward a strum-along folksy sound, the most recent record comes out of the gate with a driving, rock energy.
The opening track, “Another Funeral,” fades in with a descending minor-key arpeggiation, signaling a darkness befitting the title. The song has a grand-sounding vocal-chorus section. There are half-time down-shifts and big proggy rock-anthem portions. As with many of the Billyfolks’ songs, “Another Funeral,” has a sort of inspirational aspect. It’s music that doesn’t have any trouble being about trying to help people face and endure hardships. “Faith goes first when you’re broken. Pain hurts worse when you’re broken. It’s time to save our devotions. It’s time to save my emotions,” Wysosky sings.
Other songs, like “Hope,” are basically about not giving up, knowing that other people have the same troubles that we do, and that turning to easy solutions, like drinking, doesn’t really do much in the end. It’s a simple sentiment, but it’s also one that’s hard to argue with.
Listening to the Billyfolks, you might find yourself asking, as I did, is this Christian rock? Which prompts other questions. Like, what exactly is Christian rock anyway? Is it just rock music made by devout Christians? Or does there have to be some scriptural, faith-based aspect of the lyrics?
Wysosky said they get asked that a lot. They do sometimes play in church settings. But that’s just an extension of their let’s-play-wherever-we-can attitude. And the fact that their convictions about life — about, devotion, love, forgiveness and what you might call the Christian pieties — come through in their songs only makes sense.
“We all play in worship bands, so to speak,” Wysosky said. “It does come out in the music a little bit. It’s not like we planned it. It just kind of happened with the nature of the stories that we did.”
But the sense that this is Christian music has something to do with the way that the band plays, the textures they prefer, the vocal timbres and the general aesthetic. This is music that doesn’t strive to be dark or abrasive. It doesn’t bother with complicating itself and its intentions. Wysosky sings with a clear almost Broadway-style of delivery. You can pretty much understand every word of every song. The instrumental flourishes tend toward the dramatic too, like the harmonized guitar solo on “The Conversation” and the strings on “Look to the Hills.” Whether you go in for any of it will depend on your sensitivity to certain types of big touches and earnestness in popular music.
Wysosky and the band have taken their camaraderie, their community connections and their musical skills into other ventures outside of performing. Wysosky and fellow founding Billyfolks member Joe Richardson run Lazy Dog Recording studios in Greensboro.
The idea was to “branch out into helping other bands,” Wysosky said.
Wysosky teaches guitar lessons locally, which gives him the opportunity to stay up on the music that his students are into, as well as requiring that he maintain his own musical and analytical chops.
Music-making isn’t Wysosky’s only creative outlet though. He’s worked for years at iconic Greensboro restaurant and dessert spot Yum Yum Better Ice Cream. Wysosky is, in fact, the main ice cream maker there.
Wysosky’s schedule keeps him busy. The songwriting part of his life is something that he likes to do without putting too much pressure or analysis on. He sits down at the piano or the guitar, comes up with some riffs or chord changes and, in the same fashion, comes up with lyrical tidbits that he then fleshes out. He doesn’t tend to dwell on the meaning or theme.
“If I think too hard about stuff it just kind of gets all messed up,” Wysosky said.
The songs and the music have served a purpose for him and for listeners, providing a place to focus one’s energies and a glimpse into the reality of other people’s challenges.
“I definitely turned to music instead of doing a lot of other things at different times,” Wysosky said. “It’s helped me cope and deal with a lot of different issues.”
See the Billyfolks at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Dec. 13.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.