Stephen Wilson Jr. Is In The Fight

The rising Nashville star who hails from Seymour draws on his father’s lessons from the boxing ring as he enters the country music arena.
Photography by Stephan Pruitt Photography

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson

IT WAS just after 5 p.m. on February 14, Valentine’s Day, when reality hit Stephen Wilson Jr. like a jab square on the jaw. He was in Manhattan, Studio 8G in the legendary 30 Rockefeller Plaza, getting set to tape the musical performance for that night’s episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers. It was Wilson’s network TV debut.

He had played in front of thousands of people at festivals and on tours of the United States and Europe in support of artists like Caitlyn Smith and Brothers Osborne, and his debut album, Søn of Dad, was named one of Rolling Stone’s Best Country and Americana Albums of 2023. Even so, when Meyers introduced Wilson to a packed studio audience and the camera that would broadcast his music to hundreds of thousands of households, the singer-songwriter was initially stunned. “The energy was palpable and kind of terrifying. The adrenaline … I’m still shaking,” says Wilson by phone six days later. “When Seth Meyers announced me, it hit me all at once: That’s my name. That’s my dad’s name. Oh my God. This is happening. This is a real thing.”

Viewers tuning in later that night (including Wilson, who had already flown back home to Nashville) saw a slightly dazed singer staring wide-eyed through wire-rimmed glasses and long black bangs into the camera as he launched into the opening lines of “Cuckoo,” a workingman’s rant against a world he can’t control:

“Bank owns the house. / Bank owns the land. / Boss owns the truck and the hammer in my hands. / Ex got the kids and half of my check. / Other half goes to the IRS. / Cuckoo!”

Photography by Jace Karate Wilson preps backstage before his Valentine’s Day performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.

After a few seconds, Wilson closed his eyes for a moment, as if to collect himself. He quickly glanced at his fingers dancing on the neck of his acoustic guitar and then down at the pedal board at his feet. He was grounded, still humbled, but no longer overwhelmed by the moment.

Later, Wilson explains that in that instant, his mind instinctively returned to Indiana. The studio spotlight transformed into the overhead ring lights at the Tyndall Armory in downtown Indianapolis. The stage became a boxing ring. And the middle-aged musician was suddenly a teenage fighter with his father in his corner, competing for the state Golden Gloves amateur boxing championship. “As freaked out as I was on the show, it was nothing compared to fighting in the Golden Gloves,” says Wilson. “Late Night was scary. But not that scary.”

“The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” — Muhammed Ali

WILSON’S EARLIEST memories are smells, not sounds. Rubbing alcohol, stale sweat, leather boxing gloves, all under a hanging cloud of cigar smoke. His father, Stephen Wilson Sr., was a second-generation auto body mechanic by day, but his passion was boxing, and he would take Wilson along on the hour-long drive from Seymour to the dank and dark gyms of Indianapolis to watch him train. By the time Wilson was 7, he was lacing up the gloves himself, sparring with his younger brother, Nic, and anyone else close to his size. “My first stage wasn’t a stage,” says Wilson. “It was a boxing ring. I had to be brave enough to perform.”

Wilson’s father always thought of boxing as performance. He idolized Muhammed Ali, the ultimate showman, and to Wilson’s father, it was always important to put on a show for anyone watching. Even if you lost, you could still ingratiate yourself to the crowd by entertaining them.

Boxing was never about winning or losing to Stephen Sr., anyway. It was always about the training and preparation. That’s probably why he used the sport as a way to teach and discipline his sons. And as a single father, it was one of the few ways in which he could communicate with the boys. He hung a heavy bag in the basement and set up a ring in the barn, where he summoned Wilson and Nic, a year younger but always a little bigger, out to spar as he refereed. “He wasn’t easy on us,” says Nic. “We weren’t just hitting pads; he made us fight. It made us tough as nails. A lot of times, he put me to the test on my mental toughness. Part of the grit Stephen has is because he was tested early in life. You’ll get some adversity in your life. You have to come out swinging.”

Photo courtesy Stephen Wilson Jr. An early ringside snapshot of Stephen Wilson Sr. with his two sons, Stephen Wilson Jr. (left) and Nic

Neither son resents their father for this trial by fist. In fact, they speak lovingly about those experiences and the self-reliance it taught them early on. But boxing is a solitary sport, and while it brought the three together as a unit and made them part of a larger community as they traveled the state to compete in Golden Gloves and other amateur tournaments, it also alienated them from the rest of small-town Seymour. Nic overcame this with his natural athleticism and outgoing nature, but Wilson was more of an introvert, interested in science and, by the time he was a teenager, music.

Wilson remembers riding the school bus more than an hour from his rural home to Seymour and being steeped in country music on the radio. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones. In particular, he recalls overhearing Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl,” a song that suddenly made him think about his mother living far away in Tennessee. “It made a mess of me in about two minutes,” says Wilson. “I was immediately struck by that wizardry: What the fuck happened to me? I’ve listened to songs before. How did this song do this to me?” He was also impressed by the artistry of fellow Seymour native John Mellencamp. “He’s a painter in his music,” says Wilson. “He was painting my town to a T and crushing it. I was living in that painting. I could validate it. I believed every word he sang.”

Wilson’s dad took note. While the old man appreciated music and always seemed to have a song in his head, he didn’t speak the language. So, he bought his 16-year-old son a cheap guitar and left it in his bedroom, where Wilson spent hours pressing his fingers against the strings, determined to develop the calluses necessary to be a serious player. By then, Wilson was immersed in the grunge rock that dominated teen culture in the mid-1990s. His friend gave him a book of tablature for Soundgarden’s alternative opus Superunknown, which featured guitar parts in untraditional tunings, offbeat time-signatures, and unorthodox arrangements. Wilson engaged his scientific mind and the training ethic his dad had instilled in him and learned every song. “That guitar became my superpower,” he says. “It helped me make friends. I just put myself out there and started playing. My crew found me.”

“It’s not about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” — Rocky Balboa

WHEN WILSON eventually left Indiana for Nashville, Tennessee, where he wrote songs and played lead guitar in an indie rock band called AutoVaughn, he became even more appreciative of the resolve his father taught him in the boxing ring. “There are so many incredible musicians here, it’s a lot harder to impress people,” says Wilson. “When I moved here, I thought I didn’t have a chance. You’ll experience more rejection in one week of this business than most people will in their entire lifetime. I just wanted to quit.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t Wilson’s only gig. After finishing up a degree in microbiology and chemistry at Middle Tennessee State University, he worked contract jobs in research and development for Mars, Inc. food company. His bosses knew he wrote songs while in the lab but didn’t seem to care as long as he got his work done. In fact, the only time a higher-up saw fit to intervene was to talk Wilson out of accepting a full-time position that would keep him from chasing his dreams. Scared of the “golden handcuffs” of the corporate world, Wilson set out on his own to be a songwriter.

It took two years to get a publishing deal. And even then, success was a slog. This was 2016, and country music was in the middle of an identity crisis of sorts. The classic commercial formula of Music Row had become volatile due to infusions of country pop, rock-based alt-country, hip-hop-influenced bro-country, and roots-grounded Americana. While Wilson’s work was steeped in elements of all those sub-genres, none of his songs fit neatly into any of them. He picked up credits on recordings by the likes of Brothers Osborne, Old Dominion, and Caitlyn Smith. Tim McGraw even recorded a Wilson song, bringing Wilson’s love for the artist full circle, though the track was never released.

Each time he was knocked down, Wilson returned to his faithful cornerman, his father, who was ready with a pep talk and a plan for moving forward. Stephen Sr. urged his son to get back out there, take control, and perform his own songs instead of giving them away to other artists. “I told him the same thing I’d told everyone else who asked, ‘I don’t sing the songs, I just write them,’” says Wilson. “Someone else sings them.”

The ongoing argument ended abruptly in September 2018, when Stephen Sr. died of a sudden pulmonary disease. He was 59. Reeling from this blow, Wilson wanted to stop working altogether but was talked into playing at a songwriters’ festival in Deadwood, South Dakota, by a friend who was the event’s promoter. Wilson sang a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” which had given him comfort as a kid. “I sang that song like I was singing to my dad,” says Wilson. “It was more a plea than a song. I swear it was almost like he was a kid on my shoulders. It made me want to sing more and more and more. That’s when my artist was born.”

Wilson’s newfound singing voice is the most distinctive and polarizing aspect of his music. It’s like the snarl of a wizened truck driver, dipped in a Southern Indiana twang that drips thick from the corner of his mouth. You might even imagine it as the voice of a cartoon version of that stereotype—if you hadn’t also heard him speak in the same nasal tone for the duration of a 90-minute phone interview.

It can play like an affectation in songs like the foot-stomper “American Gothic” (“Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen”) and the bro-country-adjacent rocker “Year to Be Young 1994” (“I must admit I felt the flame / Kurt Cobain, a Fender Mustang”). It provides a down-home contrast to the deeper tones and thunderous rhythms of “Mighty Beast” and “Calico Creek,” which feel like Soundgarden.

But when Wilson gets tender, especially about the father/son dynamic, that same voice carries wisdom, power, and authenticity. “Henry,” for instance, is a sweet letter to his stepson (“You don’t have to call me daddy, / But you’ll always be my boy.”), and “Grief is Only Love” speaks to the core of anyone who has ever loved and lost (“Grief is only love that’s got no place to go.”). And of course, there’s the standout song “Father’s Son,” the title track of his album:

“I’ve never known better, / ’Cause every bone’s tethered.  / You wanna change my name, / Gotta drain my blood. / God damn, I am my father’s son.”

“He found the voice I didn’t think he had until four or five years ago,” says brother Nic. “He’s turned his voice up to make Dad proud. [Before] my dad passed, I ran Wilson Auto Body with my dad. Now I’m running it. You don’t know you’re ready until it gets thrown in your lap and you don’t have him to fall back on, only the lessons he taught you.”

Photography by Acacia Evans

Even with his hectic performance schedule, Wilson remains a member at a Nashville boxing gym where he goes to work out twice a week and find inspiration in the fighters he sees there. He draws on their discipline and their commitment to what they do, win or lose.

This is what makes sense to Wilson, a grown man who still summons his father’s ringside wisdom as he tries to navigate fame. He doesn’t sound quite confident that he’s ready for what lies ahead. But he also knows that, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if you succeed or fail.

The fight is the point.