BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It all began with a song.
Last year, Ethan Milner and Kevin Johnson were driving around when “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy” came up. The album had been recorded 12 years earlier by Wild Sweet Orange, a Birmingham band that was just starting to gain national attention when they broke up in 2010.
When one song—“Aretha’s Gold”—came up, the two founders of Cedar Creative had an idea: make a music video.
“You have these ideas and this was just something that jumped up.” Johnson said. “It just felt like something that needed to be made.”
Gathering up what they needed, Johnson and Milner reached out to Preston Lovinggood, lead singer and songwriter for the group, about wanting to create a video around “Aretha’s Gold” and wanting him to be a part of it. Luckily, Lovinggood said yes.
“We just want to collaborate with the great artists of Birmingham,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, the band had been a big part of being a teenager. To this day, he still remembers the band’s record release party for “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy” at Workplay Theater in 2008. To a packed crowd, the band played all of their songs and even covered The Beatles’ “Carry That Weight.”
“Most successful art is able to communicate a feeling the artist is feeling,” Johnson said. “They were very accessible with their feelings.”
Cedar Creative began work on the “Aretha’s Gold” video last summer in South Birmingham, bringing on Lovinggood and Virginia Newcomb, a producer and actress who had just starred the Birmingham-centered “The Death of Dick Long.” The video was just released on YouTube last month.
“We still get messages about how the lyrics really help people, and it was cool to give back in that way,” Lovinggood said.
However, what was more notable about the video was how it featured Lovinggood and original bassist Garret Kelly playing a few of the band’s biggest songs. It was the first time the two had publicly played as Wild Sweet Orange in over a decade.
Today, the two are part of the next chapter of the band and have plans to release new music later this year.
To some, it seemed Wild Sweet Orange was meant for bigger things outside Birmingham.
Starting in 2004, the band played as many places in town as they could, from Cave 9 to the Bottletree. Within a couple of years, the band was gaining a loyal following in the city, had a song (“Land of No Return”) featured on “Grey’s Anatomy” and had released an EP, “The Whale,” in 2007.
“I remember a couple of shows where you just knew there was magic going on with the music,” said Scott Register, host of “Reg’s Coffee House” on Birmingham Mountain Radio.
Early on, Register was a fan of the band and played their music whenever he could on his radio show.
“Wild Sweet Orange had songs that I thought were universal in their meaning and that a certain generation would pick up on what was said,” he said.
It wouldn’t be long before more people began to take notice of the Birmingham band. On June 27, 2008, Lovinggood, Kelly, drummer Chip Kilpatrick and guitarist Taylor Shaw made their TV debut on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Their debut album, “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy,” was released the following month.
From there, the band hit the road, touring across the country, playing Lollapalooza and opening for bands like Counting Crows, Augustana and The Whigs. They were also getting rave reviews in publications like Pitchfork and NPR, as well as being named “Best Local Musician or Group” by The Birmingham News.
Kelly, who was in his early 20s at the time, said it was hard for him and the others in the band to appreciate what they were going through.
“We were pretty young and didn’t realize the opportunity we had,” said Kelly, who is now married and has three children. “We didn’t realize the extent of the fortune of being part of what we were doing.”
However, problems were slowly starting to surface. For Kelly, being on the road for long stretches of time away from his future wife put a strain on their relationship. Others had their own demons, not to mention the music industry was starting to drastically change in the streaming age.
“Even though I feel like our skill level didn’t drop off, the wind wasn’t blowing against the sails,” Kelly said.
By 2010, Kelly and Taylor Shaw had left the band. Kelly went back to his side project, Red Harp, while Shaw pursued more of his own music through his band The Great Book of John. Lovinggood and Kilpatrick soon called it quits as well with Lovinggood embarking on a solo career and Kilpatrick joining Shaw in The Great Book of John, which Kelly also took part.
At the same time, Birmingham’s music scene began to change. Cave 9 closed in 2009 and Bottletree closed in 2015, leaving a memory of the places Wild Sweet Orange held in the city.
Lovinggood said watching the band fall apart was a numbing experience. For him, it was part of his identity and something he spent a long time working through.
“From a young age, I felt like my life would only matter if I’m super famous,” he said. “That’s an idea that can really possess you and can really shipwreck you. It took me many years to surrender that and on good days, I feel that I’m surrendered to that.”
For years afterward, Kelly and Lovinggood flirted with the idea of getting the band back together, but it seemed that it wasn’t ever going to be a reality. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly and Lovinggood got inspired to make more music with Kelly traveling up to Nashville to record with his old bandmate for what he called “Wild Sweet Orange 2.0.”
“To me, inspiration is like a car,” Kelly said. “When it comes by, you need to either get in the car or let it drive away.”
In the time since the band first parted ways, Lovinggood began a solo career and moved to Nashville. For Lovinggood, whose last album just came out, said that getting back into Wild Sweet Orange’s music can be jarring. Many of their songs were written when he was a teenager and he’s a different person now.
“It’s hard to sing songs over again about the victim mentality of your early 20s, of celebrating your wounds,” Lovinggood said. “That’s why it’s hard to sing some of those songs.”
This time around, Kelly and Lovinggood just want Wild Sweet Orange to be about the music.
“We’re not trying to make it at this point,” Kelly said. “It’s just a different mindset.”
Looking forward to what the new Wild Sweet Orange can do, both Kelly and Lovinggood are grateful that their music is still relatable years later.
“To get emails and texts and DMs and messages over these past 15 years about the music has just been a great reward,” Lovinggood said.
For Register, Wild Sweet Orange’s music will always have a place for people and that it continues to have some influence on the Birmingham music scene.
“I hope those guys look back and think ‘We made one heck of a record,” Register said. “They have something to remember all the things that went right.”
Lovinggood’s new album, “Consequences,” is out now. Kelly’s band, Red Harp, will play at Avondale Brewing Company July 17.