Culture // 5 min Read

Southbound 17

Written by Justin Jarrett

May 18, 2021

The story of Southbound 17 begins with a banjo. A long-forgotten banjo passed down to Jacob Simmons from his grandfather and stashed in a closet. When Simmons came across the instrument in 2014, he started picking. His buddy Jack Austen played a little guitar, and their mutual friend Katie Bailey had some singing chops.

Maybe it was time to start a band.

Southbound 17 2017 EP Cover
Southbound 17 2017 EP Cover

More than six years later, the Charleston-based trio is finding its footing. College is in the rearview, and the three longtime friends are making their way in the world trying to chase their dream of making music together while the industry scrambles to reinvent itself during a public health crisis that has devastated what was left of the revenue model.

Through months of canceled shows—including an April 2020 date as part of Palmetto Bluff’s Chapel Concert Series—and delays releasing their second EP, Southbound 17 has plugged ahead, cranking out a self-produced music video for “No Vacancy,” the band’s first single off Somewhere in the Neon, and planning for what’s to come.

With a foothold in Charleston’s rich, grassroots music scene and a polished new recording under their belt, the trio hopes to be poised for a big year in 2021.

I’m wishin’ and hopin’ we can hang on tight
It’s only a moment and maybe it’s only for tonight
But if we don’t grab this moment it’ll be gone
Somewhere in the neon

It all started with a banjo, but Southbound 17’s sound has evolved in the intervening six-year span since Jacob started picking, layering in Katie’s mandolin to deepen the band’s bluegrass vibe and following up a 2017 self-titled EP, released while the trio was studying at the College of Charleston, with a new EP early in 2021.

The new recording was due out in 2020, but we all learned a lot about best-laid plans last year. The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the touring music industry, providing a major setback for fledgling bands trying to get a foothold like Southbound 17. The trio focused on their day jobs—Jacob is a construction project manager, Katie is a bridal consultant, and Jack works in a specialty toy store—while searching for ways to keep pushing their music career forward.

They followed the industry-wide trend by getting a livestream up and running, exposing a suddenly captive audience to their unusual “East Coast Western” sound, and setting out to shoot a music video for their first single off the new EP, “No Vacancy,” a feel-good bluegrass romp with Katie on lead vocals.

The title track, “Somewhere in the Neon,” leads off the new record with a more classic country tune featuring Jack singing about heartbreak with distinct drips of sarcasm. If you notice some Eagles influence, it comes honestly.

“People keep saying it reminds them of the Eagles,” Jack laughs. “I think I listened to the Eagles for like a month straight.”

I’ll be your place to lay your head at the end of the day
I’ll be your sweet silence when there’s nothing left to say
You better believe that you can always stay with me
When all the other lights are flashing “No Vacancy”

The vision for the band’s first proper music video took a bit of a turn thanks to the pandemic, as the trio scrapped plans for a road trip out West and stayed closer to home. They sought out classic, vintage motels throughout the Southeast, trekking to the Mountaineer Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, the Sunset Motel in nearby Brevard, the Waikiki Village in Myrtle Beach, and the Thunderbird Inn in Savannah, among others.

Mountaineer Inn

The vibe links perfectly with the title track, as images of the neon signs at every stop on the road trip pop up throughout the video. “No Vacancy” turned out to be a rather topical single during the pandemic, as Katie belts out her vow to always be a port in a storm.

The band’s ingenuity has kept the momentum going during the downturn, and Southbound 17 started playing live shows again in November as Charleston’s music scene began to come back to life with outdoor or limited-capacity events. Now, Southbound 17 is poised for a big 2021.

At the heart of it is the new music, which has a fun energy that will translate well on stage but also reflects the individual band members’ growth, both personally and professionally. The writing on the new EP is stronger all around (though the Bonnie and Clyde “Wanted Sign” and bluegrass rocker “Reckless Love” off their debut recording have the potential to become signature live songs) and hints at the kind of personal experiences that lead to deeper songwriting.

Takin’ shots and I ain’t talkin’ ’bout the whiskey
Wanna kill me, wanna kiss me, I don’t know
Should have called it quits three rounds ago
Breakin’ promises, breakin’ dishes, breakin’ down
I don’t think we can go another round
It’s time to sober up, it’s time to stop
Takin’ shots

The trio grew up on country music, noting the Chicks (formerly
the Dixie Chicks) and Johnny Cash among their early inspirations, and those influences are apparent in their sound, along with a good mix of more recent influences. The Avett Brothers were a natural inspiration for Jacob after stumbling onto the seminal banjo, and fellow Charleston roots rockers Shovels & Rope have helped shape the band’s current sound.

What one wouldn’t gather from that list is that Southbound 17 thrives on slower songs—even sad songs—and while they do it well, their best work has a bit of an edge.

Jack and Katie have developed a good rapport sharing the mic, and it shines through on “Takin’ Shots,” a fun, upbeat track that comes in like a pop-crossover a la modern Nashville before taking a twist toward John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves.”

“‘Takin’ Shots’ was born from our love of songs that fake you out,” Jack says. “Whenever you listen to a song and then they twist the meaning on you, that is always the most satisfying thing. It makes you want to listen again and hear it through a different lens.”

All the songs on Somewhere in the Neon share that quality, because the band has created a recording heavy on hooks and catchy tunes with a fullness the first EP lacked. Part of that also comes from the band’s maturation personally, inviting deeper, more relatable themes into their music.

Hitch Hiking

The writing process usually starts with Jack, who works on the lyrics and chords until he’s satisfied and ready to share with Katie and Jacob. The group then workshops the material and collaborates to develop the full arrangement. The songs often start with a title in mind—as was the case for both “No Vacancy” and “Lucky You”—and blossom from there, Jack says, picking at wounds, some of which are still fresh.

Jack’s clever writing flair shines in “Lucky You,” one of the band’s most personal and heartfelt songs to date. It hints at heartbreak that is still fresh enough to be laced with anger and resentment, something just about everyone has experienced at some point in life.

Part of me keeps hoping that you’re happy
And part of me still hopes that isn’t true
’Cause that would mean that you don’t think about me
And I’ve been wastin’ all my time thinkin’ of you
If you’re busy moving on
If you’ve found where you belong
If forgetting me was that easy to do
Well, lucky you

“The heartbreak was less of a specific occurrence and more of a conglomeration of lots of things,” Jack says, but he perfectly captures the jilted lover trying to turn the page but unable to let go.

The song is set to a haunting melody created by the session players at OmniSound Studios in Nashville, where the new EP was recorded over Valentine’s weekend 2020. It’s a break from the overall tone of the record’s first three tracks.

“Altogether, we were really happy with how all the tracks were different enough, but all captured the same kind of feel,” Jack says.

The band likes to joke that it all started when Jacob and Jack moved to Hollywood—South Carolina—as kids, a punchline that might fall flat outside the Lowcountry.

In truth, though, Southbound 17 has come a long way since Jacob dug that old banjo out of the closet, and it all comes together on the EP’s final track, “The Moon, The Stars, and You,” Katie’s major songwriting contribution and a dreamy harmony that evokes her singing to a big, star-filled sky as she contemplates her place in the world.

All my friends think I’m crazy
Got my head in the clouds
But the thought of you, baby
Destroys all the doubts
I’ll always want what I can’t have
You know that it’s true
So every night I’ll wish for the moon, the stars, and you
As I go through life
It gets clearer to me
That there are some things you can touch
But some things you just see

The track showcases her voice, honed in the Charleston Children’s Chorus, where Katie jokes she overstayed her welcome (“I was not a child anymore by the time I left,” she laughs) as well as a deep, rich musical arrangement that provides an ethereal feel.

“As I go through life, it gets clearer to me,” Katie sings, “that there are some things you can touch, but some things you just see.”

Southbound 17’s vision has become clearer over the past year, even as chaotic as it was, and the band’s sound has certainly grown up in the three-plus years since the self-titled 2017 EP. The unexpected downtime last year also provided an opportunity to keep working on new music.

“We’re gonna have to hit the ground running,” Jack says. “We’re ready to get out there.”

You can listen to Southbound 17’s music on iTunes and Spotify. You can also follow their journey on Instagram @southbound17. •

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of the bluff.