Shredding A Musical Wave
Founding member of Sol Driven Train and one half of duo Sally & George, Joel Timmons reflects on how growing up on Sullivan’s Island propelled his musical purpose. By Carol Antman
In the mid-90s, I caved in to our young son’s persistent requests for a drum set. Along with his sister, Natanya, Philip was part of a roving pack of Sullivan’s Island kids who quickly gravitated to our home following that questionable parenting decision. Ours became the islands would-be-musician hangout, music blaring from open windows after school every day for ten years — often to the dismay of our neighbors. Joel Timmons was the leader of the pack.
“When we weren’t jamming, we were down on the beach checking the waves,” remembers Timmons, a lifelong surfer raised on Sullivan’s Island, where his mother was a ranger at Fort Moultrie. At night, they held drum circles in the maritime forest, channeling African rhythms they learned from masters at Creative Spark, an arts center in Mount Pleasant.
Surrounded there by musical encouragement, the friends formed The Groundhogs to play Americana and Grateful Dead songs. Inspiration was also rife at Wando High School, where membership in the choir meant they “sang an hour every day for four years,” says Timmons. After school was guitar club. “We were the psychedelic rock band, the Churnstyles. Public school gave us a lot.”
It was during high school that Joel, Ward Buckheister and Rus - sell Clarke began the band Sol Driven Train. Timmons, on lead vocals and the guitar, started writing songs inspired by the ocean, including Jellyfish:
I press the oxygen from my lungs and I began to sink and as the water closes over me I open my eyes and I cease to think
Eighteen years and over 1,500 shows later, the three are still the core of the five-piece band. “In that amount of time you pass through love and heartbreak, death, people moving, betrayal,” Timmons says. “I feel really lucky to have relationships that have lasted so long. They’re like my brothers.” An alumnus of band members, including Philip, still sit in sometimes helping to create the brass-kickin’, roots rock, Afro-Caribbean inspired riffs that are the band’s hallmarks.
The band has earned accolades from the City Paper and Relix Magazine for its 13 independently released CDs, but there’s more to the music than the driving grooves that get crowds dancing. “I am really concerned about our planet and environment,” Tim - mons said. “Crowds respond to the beat, but when they listen quietly they hear that.” In the call-to-action song Sleeping People, Timmons sings:
You can take one pill for your anxiety You can watch TV to get your reality You can mistake success for financial stability
The song Grandaddy holds us all accountable to our future grandchildren:
What was it like to catch a fish you could eat
Sol Driven Train makes it a point to play concerts that support worthy causes; during their upcoming Virgin Island tour they will help with hurricane recovery efforts.
In 2012, Timmons’ ocean-centric life took a detour when the bass player in bluegrass band Della Mae caught his eye at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion. His brief conversation with Shelby Means inspired an impetuous act — he sent her a love song he wrote imagining their lives together:
Then I saw our children, gifted and strong…heard them all sing along Her hair turned silver, our love turned gold
Excruciatingly, she didn’t write back for two long weeks and then only to say that it was flattering and “by the way, I have a boyfriend.”
While the course of true love rarely runs smoothly, they did get together, eventually married and formed the duo Sally and George, named after Means’s grandparents. It was then that Timmons reluctantly moved to the mountains:
Well there ain't no beach in Nashville, ain't no sea in Tennessee but there's a green-eyed siren with sandy hair
“My relationship with Charleston now is the same way I feel about the ocean,” Timmons says of his hometown, his family still lives on Middle Street, near Fort Moultrie. “It deepens when I’m there.” Means and Timmons’ musical chemistry is magnetic. In Hey Wow, their first co-written song, Means sings:
When I first heard your song, the timing was all wrong but still I smiled and hummed along I didn't keep you waiting' long Oh wow, look at us now.
Riding the musical waves has its challenges, says Timmons. “One night the music is giving you goosebumps and the crowd is responding, and the next you’re questioning your life choices. It’s just part of the journey.” They tour constantly, play side gigs, take side jobs and live cheaply. But Timmons is grateful: “I’m pursuing passion, joy and art to make a living. It’s a real privilege.”