Dorothy James had always hoped her grandson, Seth Green, would one day enlist with the Armed Forces. James, an Alexandria resident, has twice been a military wife as well as a military widow: Her first husband was a member of the Air Force before he died of lung cancer at 48 in 1969, and her second husband was a career Naval officer before his death in 1980. Her affection for, and interest in, the military is ingrained.
But Green wasn't interested in following those familial paths of glory. Growing up in western Albemarle County, he was drawn to the rhythms of rock; now 23 years old, he plays bass guitar for the Charlottesville-based country band Sons of Bill, which has toured the East Coast since 2005.
"Been into [music] since grade school," said James, with a glimmer of nostalgic defeat. "I was hoping he'd be interested in the military, but he wasn't. That's why it sort of surprised me that they decided to do this."
Next month, Sons of Bill embarks on the most unusual tour of its career: Playing a series of concerts at military bases in Japan, South Korea, Guam and Okinawa, as part of a tour put together by Armed Forces Entertainment. As the band's Web site reported, "The folks in charge of keeping up the spirits of our men and women in uniform overseas have decided that those serving on the Pacific Rim this summer are badly in need of some hillbilly rock and roll."
When Green told James about the trip, she was thrilled, recalling how much the troops appreciated these artists' appearances when her first husband were stationed internationally. "We had four tours overseas, and I know how much it meant to the fellas to have entertainment from home, even when there wasn't a war going on," she said.
GREEN SAID HIS family's military background was a small consideration when his band was approved for this tour. "It wasn't the reason we signed up for it, I don't think," he said.
So what was the reason?
"We didn't sign up for it, to be honest."
Green said that Tammy Brackett of Moonstruck promotions, who does publicity for the band, had previously worked with Armed Forces Entertainment. She took the liberty of sending a Sons of Bill CD to the organization last fall; it was well received, and the band was asked to do a military tour of the Caribbean in December. Schedule conflicts prevented that from happening, but this summer provided a window between gigs in June and August to hit the road.
"We're psyched about it," said Green. "We all like traveling, we all like playing for appreciative audiences, and you feel like this is going to be one of those audiences that deserves a good show."
According to its Web site, Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE) is the "official Department of Defense agency for providing entertainment to U.S. military personnel overseas," hosting 1,200 shows around the world each year.
Green said he read a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine comparing AFE with the more famous USO, which successfully delivered Bob Hope's golf jokes to troops around the world for decades. "What the USO has done is take over the big billing, sending Kid Rock and Toby Keith to Iraq. But they don't send entertainment to all the little bases, and this company fills the void," Green said.
The band expects to play for crowds of between 100-200 troops on the tour, which will bring them to locations that aren't exactly in thriving metropolitan areas.
"I guess if you're in a big city, you can go out and do some things. But if you're out in the boondocks, you don't have those kinds of opportunities," Green said.
In a news release, Frank Tagatac, Armed Forces Entertainment regional coordinator for the Pacific, praised the band's live act: "Sons of Bill gets out there and really jams, they really put everything they’ve got into playing. I know the troops will definitely enjoy such a lively show, especially since these performers appeal to all types of audiences."
BEFORE THE AFE TOUR, Sons of Bill — Green and brothers James (acoustic guitar, vocals), Sam (electric guitar and vocals) and Abe Wilson (organ, piano, banjo and vocals) are the primary members — has a Thursday, June 28 show scheduled for IOTA Club & Café in Arlington (2832 Wilson Blvd.), its second to last gig in the U.S. before departing overseas.
"I like IOTA a lot," said Green. "The crowd that comes to see you, that's a good thing. They treat you well there, too."
Along with playing the band's final shows of the month, Green has taken on most of the paperwork necessary to join the AFE tour: lists of equipment Sons of Bill will travel with; hair color, eye color, height, weight and other personal information for members of the band; and passport validation in order to purchase plan tickets and clear itineraries. "They've actually been pretty well organized with it, which I've been impressed with," said Green of AFE. "Usually when you deal with a lot of bureaucracy, it's totally unorganized."
But AFE isn't like the rest of the federal government, just like a tour of Southeast Asia isn't like the tour of U.S. bases in Iraq that was chronicled in the pages of Green's issue of Rolling Stone.
"I was thrilled for them … as long as he wasn't going to Iraq," recalled James. "I wouldn't be excited about that. I really wouldn't. I have mixed emotions about it."
Green said the band hasn't discussed whether they'd tour Middle East war zones. "I'd definitely be interested in it. I know there are safety concerns, but I would assume they know what they're doing," he said. "That would certainly a more intense trip."
No matter what his bandmates' opinions are about the War in Iraq, Green said Sons of Bill are united in purpose when it comes to playing for audiences of troops in July.
"There are certainly [political] differences within the band, but I think we're all on the same page with this one: Whether or not you support the war, you support the warriors."