As FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” roars towards the Nov. 29 conclusion of its fourth season and guns its engine for a fifth year, the outlaw biker drama stands out as one of the most music-driven skeins on TV.
From season one’s intense assault sequence choreographed to Andy Williams’ ballad “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” several climactic scenes have pivoted on the prominent use of source music or tracks cut expressly for the show. Specific tunes are often written into the scripts by showrunner Kurt Sutter.
Music supervisor and composer Bob Thiele says, “Out of the 13 episodes we do each season, between three and five episodes will have a song noted in the script, where Kurt [says,] ‘I want to use this song.’ In season one, we used ‘John the Revelator’ [in the closing episode]. At the end of season two, he really wanted badly to use [Bruce Springsteen’s] ‘Adam Raised a Cain’. . .and we just could not get the turnaround, so we used [Paul Brady’s cover of] ‘Gimme Shelter.’ Season three, we started with ‘No Milk Today.'”
While about 65% of the “Sons” music is source material (cleared by supervisor Michelle Kuznetsky), the show regularly employs a house band, the Forest Rangers. The group includes Thiele and top players like guitarists Dave Kushner of Velvet Revolver (who co-wrote the show theme with Thiele and Curtis Stigers), Val McCallum and Lyle Workman; bassist Davey Faragher (of Elvis Costello’s Imposters); drummer Brian MacLeod (Toy Matinee); and keyboardist Phil Shenale (Tori Amos).
One “Sons” star occasionally flexes her own formidable musical chops: Katey Sagal (aka Gemma Morrow, also aka Mrs. Kurt Sutter), who began her career singing behind the likes of Bob Dylan and Bette Midler. “Kurt has her do one song every year,” Thiele says.
For this season’s premiere, Thiele cut a new version of a song that sported its own family ties: “What a Wonderful World,” written for Louis Armstrong by his father, Bob Thiele, Sr., with George David Weiss.
Thiele notes that using the song – covered by the Kills’ Alison Mosshart with the Forest Rangers — was Sutter’s idea: “It actually says in the script, ‘And now our musical montage begins with a Bob Thiele, Jr., cover of a Bob Thiele, Sr., song.'”
On the source music side, the show uncovers new acts, sometimes through chance encounters. An associate turned Thiele on to Austin act the Lions, who ended up being used four times in the first season alone; Lions leader Matt Drenik’s side project Battleme has also been used frequently. Singer Joshua James was found glancing through the Bonaroo festival’s Web site.
Again, Sutter’s fingerprints can be found on the source music.
Thiele says, “Kurt found this guy named Noah Gundersen, and sent me this song called ‘Family.’ He’s a young guy up in Seattle who’s on his own label. We ended up using it at the end of the sixth episode this year.
“Kurt came into the game going, “I don’t know nothin’ about music.’ He’s really become a connoisseur and a tastemaker.”