“Bon Aqua” A Refreshing Dive into the Depths of Stephen Wilson Jr’s Country Brilliance

If Stephen Wilson Jr was a cult, I would be an evangelist and baptize he who has ears to hear in Wilson’s album, “Bon Aqua“.

“Bon Aqua” is easily the best album the last 5 years and with this release Stephen Wilson Jr. has solidified his status as one of the best living songwriters of our time (yes, we did just make that claim).

I’ll never forget when I first heard Stephen Wilson Jr.’s music. Only a select few other artists have stopped me like Wilson (Nirvana, Garth Brooks, Jawbreaker, and The Avett Brothers). When I first clicked on Wilson’s “The Devil” these parched ears were instantly satiated. The sonic satisfaction and complexity of the, seemingly, simple lyrics had me, like the women at the well, rushing out to tell everyone “Come and listen to the man who is saving country music!”

Wilson isn’t necessarily radio-country or neo-traditional nor is he reduced to “singer-songwriter country” or even Americana: he’s the best parts of all these (seen by the fact that he has had his songs cut from the spectrum of Trace Adkins and Brothers Osbourne to The Lone Bellow and Ryan Necci and the Buffalo Gospel). All the best parts of American music Wilson is, as he and and co-songwriter Hailey Whitters mention country of the “Real life living” sort (the masses would do well to hear a three way collaboration where Wilson’s jumps in on a super-version of David Morris’ “Carrying Your Love” and Phil Vassar’s “Just Another Day in Paradise”).

Wilson’s first song (as a solo artist) released in the wild in 2019, “The Devil,” (with the corresponding cinematic video garnering some lofty accolades. Stop what you are doing and listen/watch this video), and was followed up by the lyrical time-machine that is “Year To Be Young 1994” (which did some serious rounds on TikTok stirring up all manner of nostalgia and intrigue). Indeed the “Fires burnin’ and [Stephen Wilson Jr. is] still holdin’ the torch”

With Wilson’s catalog at that time only two tracks deep I was hurtin’ for some new Wilson tunes. I developed a daily ritual that rivaled the morning routines of Tibetan monks: I would wake up, brush my teeth, read Romans and then check every streaming platform and SWjr social outlet all with the hopeful anticipation of a release. Every day was a loosing game, as I clung to the hope that today would be the day. Like that of the 12 disciples I was asking “Is today the day you will restore American music to its former glory?”But Wilson, being a marketing genius (or perhaps just busy being the husband and father he is), teased us for the next two years with a slow burn of just a few songs being released.

Fast forward a few months, and within a year Wilson does a smattering of releases with each further solidifying this was no fluke. Stephen Wilson Jr. is the real deal. Wilson’s growing canon (including apocryphal works of collaborations and covers) brought us to about 12 total songs (including an unplugged version of “Year To Be Young 1994” and a poignant duet with his wife Leigh Nash, released in her catalog, “Made for This“).

The first hint of a new album came when Wilson played a gig around Thanksgiving at the Nashville Bowl with Boy Named Banjo, and during on-stage banter, he mentioned that he was working on a record. With this announcement in mind I did what any fan boy would do, I signed up for Google notifications to be alerted with any combination of “Stephen Wilson Jr” and “drops”, “releases”, “EP”, “stream”, and “album”. But, alas, my inbox remained empty.

While waiting for an album/more songs I saw the Kentuckiana native’s brilliance was not going unnoticed. in addition to other applause for Wilson (Tom Rollin’s Billboard’s celebratory article “Makin’ Tracks: Give ’Em Hill, ‘Billy’: Stephen Wilson Jr.’s Edgy Celebration of His Back-Roads Roots” was no surprise for the appeal) it was not just “critics” that rightly celebrated Wilson, but proper music artists/bands/singers also took notice. In addition to some Europe dates with The Brothers Osbourne (whom, bas mentioned above, co-wrote and released with Wilson the song “Make It A Good One”), Wilson the recording artist (crowning the roster of both Big Loud Records and River House Artists) did a few runs with, to name a few, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Lone Bellow and Hailey Whitters. There were also a few one-offs with the likes of Kip Moore, Tracy Lawrence, Maren Morris, and just last week made his Grand Ole Opry debut (and did I mention that Stephen Wilson Jr will be sharing the stage with Zach Bryan, Trampled by Turtles, Band of Horses and Sheryl Crow July 22 at the FairWell Festival and then with Brandi Carlile and Billy Strings Sept 14th at Burbon and Beyond? To be sure, in 5 years, if not soon, aforementioned acts just might be saying “we had the honor of sharing the stage with Stephen Wilson Jr.”).

With the Wilson releases at a standstill and waiting for that illusive release, I had to get my fix elsewhere – this was in the form of songs he’s penned for others. Wilson, the song-scientist (Staff Songwriter for BMG Nashville), has put pen to paper with songs being snatched up by artists ranging from Logan Mize and the Lone Bellow to Caitlyn Smith/Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne and Tim McGraw (with the McGraw cut not being released, but all the better, cause I don’t see how Wilson’s version of the can be topped – give a listen here: “For What It’s Worth”).

Having exhausted those tracks, I got desperate, and became the guy who listens to the YouTube videos. Like the Old Testament offering shadows and types of the Real Thing to come in the New Testament, there was so much substance in these live/unreleased songs (after you have exhausted “Bon Aqua” do yourself a favor and scour the internet and find these songs. Might I suggest you start with “I’m A Song”?).

Hooray for late March! For this was the blessed time when the SWjr camp sent out a mass text message announcing that something big was acomin’. The following Monday brought us, finally, after 4 years, Stephen Wilson Jr.’s first album “Bon Aqua.”

American music had been in a rut, and Stephen Wilson Jr single-handedly pulled us out of it with this masterpiece. Appealing to this indie inside of all of us (Death Cab for Country for sure) this is music is also for the masses. It’s for “real life living.” Like the grace of God, I don’t know what we did to deserve this gift of “Bon Aqua,” but I’m grateful for it every day.

Come on in boys the water’s fine. Bon Aqua indeed. Selah.

[By the way, it must be said of Stephen, that like Jesus, Stephen loves deeply his father. Senior is never not on his son’s tongue. It’s always a delight to hear and read Wilson speaking so highly of his hardworking late father. Here’s to you Stephen Wilson Sr. – we know it was hard being a single dad, but you did brilliant. Grace and peace to you your legacy of kindness and selflessness lives on]

Bon Aqua EP Track Listing:

  1. “The Devil”

This is the song you put on when you have a 3-hour drive that starts at midnight. The kind where you roll the windows down because you want the wind blowing in your face but it’s cold so you turn the heater on. Somber, but not depressing, “The Devil” is a pretty bare song but every instrument has a dedicated and calculated place. The song opens with haunting strings that then give way to the syncopated backdrop of Wilson’s cat gut string guitar work. Carrying the song forward like a midnight march is the sporadic slide guitar from the able fingers of Scotty Murray, a booming kickdrum that you feel in your chest are a perfect canvas for the lyrics to a song that Wilson tells us “wrote itself.” If this is your first introduction to Stephen Wilson Jr, please find a quiet room, a screen larger than a phone and watch this:

2. “American Gothic (feat. Hailey Whitters)”

Wilson teamed up with fellow cornfield kid Hailey Whitters (“Everything She Ain’t“) for a song that will, I believe, solidify Wilson as one of the best living songwriters out there. It’s one thing to string together some rhymes about a back road and the 9 to 5 grind, but its altogether different, and a genuine gift, to be able to speak the mundane fodder of everyday life and “real life living.” Wilson and Whitters, the poet-anthrpologists, come out here and pen a song worthy of not just 5 out of 5 stars but an honorary doctorate. I include the lyrics in full because, well, the lyrics alone are a work of art that deserve to be admired and enjoyed. “American Gothic” communicates a story that is both personal and universal. I mean who cant resonate with this Camry refrence: “Sugar-coated Wonder Bread tastes like candy Black lipstick, first kiss in a Camry.”

Cemetery kids on a midnight clear
Saying Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror
Sneaking Natty Lights down the stairs of the basement
Ain’t much to do but the night’s what you make it

Running down a dream on Stephen King and Kerouac
Children of the Corn, Pink House, Pink Cadillac
It’s not just any old patch of pitchfork dirt
Stop me if you’ve already heard
The one about

Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen
White frost, bean field, bonfire, kerosene
Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket
Lost in the land of American Gothic, yeah

Watching Days Of Our Lives on a second hand couch
Nicotine soaked wood panels of the house
Sugar coated Wonder Bread tastes like candy
Black lipstick, first kiss in a Camry
Looks a little like
Looks a little like

Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen
White frost, bean field, bonfire, kerosene
Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket
Lost in the land of American Gothic, yeah

It’s real life living
Real life living
It’s real life living

Going with the grain
Where the colors ain’t fading
Real life living in a real life painting
That looks a little like
Looks a little like

Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen
Yeah, white frost, bean field, bonfire, kerosene
Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket
Lost in the land of American Gothic, yeah
Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen
No plans, sun tan, laying on a trampoline
Red Bic lighter in a blue jean pocket
Lost in the land of American Gothic, yeah

Real life living
Real life living
Real life living in a real life painting
Real life living
Real life living
Real life living
Real life living in a real life painting

3. “Year To Be Young 1994”

At live shows Wilson shares the story from his youth, presumably a snapshot of a 1994 Saturday night, of a botched first kiss in the parking lot of the roller-skating rink. Shortly after a couple-skate her friends tell his friends that she wants a kiss. Junior heads out to the parking lot and, with her mom looking, he goes in for this kiss. Not yet the man of precision and measurement he would later become (Wilson holds a degree in microbiology), his attempt at a smooch ended up giving his lady friend a bloody lip, which was not exactly the outcome either of them had in mind (kicking him while he’s down, she later called the land line and broke up with him). All that to say, Wilson manages to parse down that story into a few lines. I hope to get a story behind every line of this song (which, again, I share in length for your enjoyment).

I must admit I felt the flame
Kurt Cobain
A Fender Mustang
MTV brought me up
This is your brain on drugs

I Won’t forget that first girlfriend
That got me into Boyz II Men
I grew up a lot that year
My sweatshirt said no fear

My life was a stereo
Man it was everything
First one in line for the last dance with Mary Jane
Hiding in my headphones laying on a bedroom floor

Tell mom see ya later
Don’t be blowin’ up my pager
When the shows over I’ll come home
When that is, I don’t know

Teen spirit in the air
Before we owned all cell phones
In study hall passin’ notes
Yes, no, or I don’t care

When my life was a stereo
Man it was everything
Soundtrack, first kiss
Out at the roller rink

Hands held
Two hearts
Fallin’ on a hardwood floor

Think you know it all when you don’t know any better
Tell yourself
You’re gonna live forever
Fires burnin’ and I’m still holdin’ the torch
From 1994

My life was a stereo
Man it was everything
Soundtrack track takes me back
Through all those memories

Hiding in my headphones
Laying on the bedroom floor
It takes me back to the days when a song was so much more


4. “Hometown”

Without a doubt this is my favorite Stephen Wilson Jr song. A few highlights from the track:

I wanna be home in my own hometown
Back where my roots ran wild
In the barefoot stomping ground
Yeah I wanna wake up to some of that cooking
Know my way around without looking
Home in my own hometown
I’m always gonna be hometown


There’s a graveyard there where my granddaddy is
A speed of life that I sure do miss
That high school crush that I never did kiss

5. “Holler From The Holler”

Read this article and watch the video.

6. “Billy”

Sure backroads, beer and cutoffs are the low hanging fruit for country music (and rightly so), and there is some of that in reality, but here Wilson hits home. Accurately referencing everything from the ability to  “skin a buck with one hand, clean a bluegill with the other” to everyone’s favorite nautical “cannonball in the kiddie pool” he’s one of us. “Three chords and the truth” to be sure. Here is the acoustic version:

7. “The Beginning”

Wilson grew up Pentecostal. Wearied by the over-emphasis on “the end is nigh,” he brings a counter reality that, despite the end approaching, we are yet still in the beginning:

And I read the holy books and I poured through the pages
Upon a closer look, I had a revelation
Yeah, I noticed there’s a trend
The world keeps spinning
We’ve been talking ’bout the end ever since the beginning.” I couldn’t agree more, does not the living God tell his people set apart for Himself to “plant gardens” while in the Babylonian captivity. We all would do well to be present. Tomorrow has enough worries of its own.


Read ON

On the “Hick-Libs”

While the hick-lib celebrities would have us believe that Appalachia and rural Oklahoma is home to covert gay coal miners and queer cowboys, the overwhelming

Read more >
Country Music Pride