Sean Thomas Gerard says the word "well" in the most charming way. The vowel seeps out nice and slow, so that by the time it leaves his lips, it's a disarmingly soft and twangy "a," not the more direct and proper "e." It's an unmistakably Southern trait, one most folks in North Carolina either share or hear daily.
Speaking from his Wilmington home on a Friday afternoon, Gerard—who leads the genre-tweaking folk-rock band Onward, Soldiers—starts almost every answer to almost every question with that pronunciation. But Sean is not a Southerner. He actually grew up in Pennsylvania.
"Moving to the South, especially from Pittsburgh, where it's kind of a fast place to live, kind of gave me a new perspective, not just on songwriting, but on life," says the 24-year-old musician. "When I moved down here, everyone seemed so relaxed. There's just a whole different vibe going on down here."
That accent could either be a projection of Gerard's feelings toward his new home, or simply a coincidence. Either way, it's a fitting expression of the regional facets he's come to embrace, including the Southern-ness that now pervades his music. Moving with the laid-back rollick of The Marshall Tucker Band and the swaggering electric chomp of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Onward, Soldiers funnels Gerard's words through old, shuffling rhythms and bursts of rock aggression. This is roots rock with a Southern soul and a restless heart.
That shiftiness stems directly from Gerard. He first ventured south about six years ago to attend the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He took all the classes to become a marine biologist, but music was a constant distraction. He'd played guitar since age 12, singing in church and school choirs before that. At school, he longed for some creative stimulus, which he finally found when he moved back to Pittsburgh at the end of his first year in Wilmington. He and a friend put songs to tape on an eight-track. After two more years of school and musical tinkering in Pittsburgh, he again felt the urge to leave, moving back to Wilmington to give music an honest shot. He had finally relented to the only activity that seemed to let his mind constantly wander.
"A lot of people have said that to me," he laughs, talking about his inability to be still. "You don't really notice that until somebody points it out to you I guess. I'm pretty restless, and that would explain a lot of the way I write and the way we perform."
This is clear on Ghosts in This Town, Onward, Soldiers' 2010 debut. One moment, Gerard's leading his band through an agile Allman-esque slice of riff-rock called "Alright by Me"; the next, he's writhing among the briars of "The Past," an alt-country tune that prickles with emotion. Gerard jumps around even more lyrically. On "Let the Time Roll By," for instance, he ricochets between one-liners, finding sufficient adhesive in his wry, down-home populism. "Nothing changes in the past but opinions, and not the facts," he offers in Dylan-like salvos. "When war was all that you absorbed, but you can't find what we're fighting for, you got to bring the boys on back." His helter-skelter points bounce along on a potent click-clack of banjo and piano, all punctuated by choice guitar solos. The momentum sweeps the song to an irresistible chorus. "Chase my blues away," Gerard encourages a lover.
This Onward, Soldiers song, like several others, depends on the music to make Gerard's grab-bag approach cohere. This likeable, yet richly layered Americana comes courtesy of a band whose members are divided by a substantial age gap. While Gerard and bassist Jarett Michael Dorman are both in their 20s, drummer Kevin Rhodes and guitarist/ producer Lincoln Morris are in their 40s. That gap might hinder many bands from blocking off time for recording or simply getting along; after all, as Gerard notes, the band's elder statesmen have been making music for longer than he's been alive. For Onward, Soldiers, though, that age gap means a fluid mix of experience and vitality that allows Gerard to follow his wayfaring musical impulses without slipping off the map.
"It's just playing music," Rhodes says. "Music to me is ageless. There's plenty of people we know older than us who are still killing it. But I think Sean also has kind of an old soul. I don't think about it a whole lot. It does strike me when they pass out earlier than I do, and I get up earlier as well."
That just-go-with-it mentality—or solving problems simply by pushing past them—seems to be Onward, Soldiers' special attribute, whether that means the young Northerner leading the older Southern rock band or the band's haberdasher approach to songwriting. It's a resolve that's tied up in the band's name, a saying Gerard borrowed from his mom.
"As we were packing up to leave the house, she would say, 'Onward, soldiers,'" he remembers. "A lot of people get a lot of different meanings out of it, but that's really all there is to it. It's really just moving, moving onward, onward with life despite circumstances."