Stephen Simmons is a politically minded singer-songwriter whose new song “Devils Work Is Never Done” has been added to Neil Young’s Songs of the Times page on his site ( a great reference for songs that matter).
Simmon’s new self-released record, Drink Ring Jesus, is an all acoustic affair that deals quite a bit with religious faith and spirituality. Stephen was raised in the Church of Christ and as far as I can tell at the present time has an uneasy relationship with his god. Despite having no faith in religion, I am still fascinated by songs that deal with this topic. “Drink Ring Jesus” is pretty topical isn’t it? What with all the nuts finding the virgin mary in patterns on the underbelly of turtles, underneath aqueducts or hidden in the bark of a tree. In this song the narrator finds jesus under his glass inscribed in his “drink ring” with that as a sign he seems resigned to be saved (but salvation in this song lacks a certain appeal perhaps because he knows he can’t take his drink with him). “Devil’s Work…” tells how the devil is upset that he’s only left the rotten, the famous and the powerful, the politicians and the wagers of war. This sounds like Train A Comin’ era Steve Earl which like I’ve said before is a huge compliment since I think that record is the high water mark of the acoustic country genre.
If this rings true for you I encourage you to buy this disc directly from Stephen Simmons here.
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus
Sit on any rocky outcrop in winter, stare out to sea into the prevailing wind, be stoic, be unmoved by the tangy freezing salt spray, be King Canute, do this and express it through folk music – you’ve just discovered Stephen Simmons. It is the sort of folk music that is unchanging, an acoustic guitar and something to say: think of Steve Earle. For Simmons it is the attempt to reconcile a strict Christian upbringing with the contemporary world, so we get fire and brimstone, spirituality and stylistic purity. Some of the songs come across with the cold-heartedness of a true believer and as they unfold at much the same pace throughout, if you don’t share the fascination with the religious iconography then it is difficult to get through – it seems humourless – there is no joy except that of salvation, the biggest lie. I know I don’t want to be saved and I hope that it isn’t just this that makes me think that this is competent but stilted and one for the converted only.
– David Cowling
05.30.06 American Songwriter Magazine
STEPHEN SIMMONS Drink Ring Jesus
Locke Creek Records ****
It was fitting that Stephen Simmons leave his second album threadbare. The simple combination of his gruff-yet-nimble rasp and fine-spun acoustic guitar work, joined occasionally by forlorn harmonica, allow a lonely wind to rattle through musings on God, the devil and the tumbledown soul. Though the Tennessee-born singer/songwriter’s plainspoken narration of limping, booze-soaked spirituality began with 2004’s full-band debut, Last Call, this unvarnished song cycle stares still more unflinchingly at a jumble of unanswered questions. The title track poignantly portrays a nerveless, God-haunted workingman, while “Devil’s Work Is Never Done” voices a wry litany of complaints from Lucifer’s own mouth. “Dante’s Blues No.7” plumbs the depths of human vice, as the deadliest of sins play out in a dingy barroom scene. Under Simmons’ intense gaze, hope, despair and human striving earn greater meaning.
– Jewly Hight
01.01.07 Carbondale Nightlife
Stephen Simmons: Crossroads of Sin and Redemption
Stephen Simmons is not your typical acoustic singer-songwriter. In a way, he is an everyman. He spends his nights crisscrossing the country, playing one-nighters on tiny stages where, depending on the gig, the joint is either serving up cold ones or hot cups of Joe. Back at his home base in Nashville, Tennessee, when he is not writing, recording, or preparing for another tour, he works at his straight job, substitute teaching to make ends meet.
Carbondale audiences can journey with Simmons to his music’s address, the corner of Mundane and Grace, when the singer/songwriter brings his solo acoustic sounds Friday, January 26 to the stage of the Longbranch Coffee House.
While his look in photographs is a little Steve Earle and a little Foo Fighters, the candor with which he writes and sings is pure Johnny Cash. Many performers who tout themselves as singer/songwriters sugarcoat the travails and dark valleys in which both they and their audiences often find themselves, but Simmons lays it all on the line, leaving no stone of the soul unturned, until listeners have examined their own hearts in search of real truth. With a combination of both saint and sinner coursing through his Tennessee blood, he finds himself, in his music, often at the crossroads of sin and redemption, living somewhere in a place not so very different from where most people dwell. The only difference is that Simmons sings about it, and with honesty.
Born the son of a factory worker and a school teacher in the small rural town of Woodbury, Tennessee, Simmons naturally came by the grace spectrum in his music, with a childhood highlighted by a strict Church of Christ upbringing. The stained-glass windows and weekly hymns, however, did not absolve the young Simmons from exposure to the often rowdy side of rural country life, as he states in his website’s biography:
“When you’re raised in the Church of Christ and you’re sensitive at all, it leaves you with a lot to struggle with. You grow up to see there are gaps and holes in what you’ve been taught. On the one hand I was exposed to small-community religious life. But on the other hand, I was exposed to my wild-ass relatives. My songs are an attempt to get all of those contradictions out.”
Contradiction is at the core of Simmons’s creativity, with many of his songs being what he calls murder ballads, while others proclaim the cleansing power of Grace and its effect on a soul teetering on the brink of eternal oblivion. In an exclusive Nightlife interview, he says that he hopes Carbondale audiences will find nothing typical, but something very special in his upcoming live show.
“What can they expect? As far as being the guy with guitar, I’m definitely more of a storyteller in every sense of the word,” he says. “I’m not going to be jumping around and playing fifteen-minute instrumentals. I’m a songwriter, and I have a lot of songs. Some old, some brand-new, some I haven’t played in forever. It kind of runs everything from spiritual themes to murder ballads to things on the lighter side.”
Simmons’s latest collection of music, Drink Ring Jesus, is a lyrical study in redemption, both spiritual and physical. The standout track, a haunting rural portrait called “Next Stop, Redemption,” finds the singer on a mythical train barreling down the tracks for an uncertain destination: “Just a train tryin’ to find its way home/Picking up people like a lost and found/Hitting every depot that’s long been abandoned/Man, this train is going where we need to go.” This and other folly-and-faith yarns spun with a deep, almost molasses-soaked voice and expert musicianship make Drink Ring Jesus a CD that will, if not change the listener’s spiritual destination, at least make him or her think more deeply along the journey.
Illuminating the more shadowy corners of the human soul has been a constant theme in Simmons’s songwriting since his previous release, Last Call. With more unsettling honesty about the less shiny places of the heart, Last Call also points the way to the light that brightens those darkest reaches, in songs like “Sweet Salvation”: “And I don’t know how I found you/In the kind of places that I roam/It’s always the fool that’s the last to see/It was more like you that found me.”
“I think some of the themes in [my music] are pretty much the same wherever I go,” Simmons says when asked if his Tennessee upbringing has been a key factor in his music. “Rural Tennessee doesn’t look that different from Southern Illinois in some ways. I think there are things that can be anywhere, in small towns especially.”
As any good singer/songwriter’s music tends to do from album to album, Simmons says that small changes, while remaining with his core theme of mankind’s search for redemption in the midst of a sin-filled world, have been played a large part in the evolution and completion of his latest creation.
“The Drink Ring Jesus record is an all-acoustic record. It is a pretty spiritual record, but not like in a contemporary-Christian kind of way. In fact, there are even a couple of songs on there that are told from the devil’s perspective. Last Call, my first record, is kind of a rock ‘n’ roll record. There is some stripped-down stuff on there, but it’s more character-driven. Drink Ring Jesus has characters in it, but most of the songs are like a guy sitting in a bar talking to himself or the devil talking to a crooked preacher. I even have one where the devil and God are fighting over lost souls.”
As a creator of music, Simmons has mixed feelings when asked which aspect of the writing, recording, or performing is his favorite.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s a copout to say a little of all three. I’ve been a songwriter longer than I’ve been a singer or a performer. Writing is something I knew even before I knew I needed to be writing them down. If I’m away from it for a while I go crazy, and people tell me, ‘You need to be writing.’ It’s that voice that never stops; it always wants my attention. Recording is just a blast. It’s a lot of fun. I love being in the studio; I wish I could do it every six months. As far as playing goes, I took December off, and now I’m itching to play again. I really miss playing live when I don’t have that. Sometimes I get a little worn out when I’m out of town every weekend for three or four weeks in a row or when I’m gone more than a week. But you go more than a few weeks without playing a show, and I really miss it. On the flipside, shows are an experience that we are sharing with an audience. It’s not just me or just me and my band. It may be splitting hairs to say that, but it’s true.”
There are many songs on the current CD, Drink Ring Jesus, that will catch listeners’ ears or make them think, but Simmons himself confesses an inability to pick just one song that he feels is his favorite or is more special than the others.
“You know, I don’t know that I do,” he says when asked if he has a favorite song on the record. “In that sense, I mean, there are definitely times when I listen to a particular song, and think I may have done something above and beyond, if something has a little extra ‘ooomph’ in it or you feel you have outdone yourself. Then again, there are times when I get so caught up in trying to get all of the songs finished and recorded that they kind of pile up to them and I don’t get a chance to really go back and listen to them. Then I come back to certain ones later, and they catch a new life and they have new energy. I don’t know that I have any particular song that I feel is better than others. If you’re talking about your songs as your children, a parent loves all of his kids equally.”
Symbolism and imagery play major roles in Simmons’s music, whether he is writing about a man contemplating the depths of his soul as he stares into the depths of a whiskey glass, or a type of purgatory train gathering lost souls as it winds its way toward eternity. The singer says that many types of places inspire his songs, and listeners can expect, when sampling his music, to find themselves “somewhere between a bar and a drive-in the country.”
“A lot of the songs on Drink Ring Jesus were born at my desk, songs where I was sitting at my desk at one in the morning, just writing,” says Simmons. “Once everything going on in your life calms down and leaves your mind a little bit, sometimes the darnedest things slip out of your mouth while you’re sitting around playing. I’ve always tried to be open, and try to catch it while it’s there and then try to figure it out later. I love analogies and metaphors, and those are things that have always played very heavily in my writing. Everybody wants redemption. Everybody needs to feel that all is forgiven and everything is going to be okay in the end. We all want to be accepted no matter how much [like] outcasts we may act like sometimes. That’s what the music is about.”
While Simmons is currently touring in support of Drink Ring Jesus, he is already looking to his musical future, which includes a newly completed album that has yet to be released. The singer will say little about the upcoming music, except to say that it is a departure from his current and previous releases.
“It’s more about relationships, and men and women. It’s a rock record. Nobody dies on this record. And there are no mentions of Jesus or God or the devil. I’ve said all I’ve got to say about those things. There are story songs, but they relate more to relationships between people. The subject matter is a lot different. It’s a bit broader than Drink Ring Jesus. Musically it’s a lot different and goes in a lot more different direction.”
– Jeff Hale
03.01.07 CTRL ALT COUNTRY (Belgium)
Drink Ring Jesus
Me & My Americana / Rounder Europe / Munich (4 stars) ****
Echt met hangende pootjes naar zitten uitkijken, naar dit schijfje! Na zijn fantastische CD “Last Call” uit 2004 rekenden we deze Stephen Simmons immers al onvoorwaardelijk tot het gezellige kransje van onze persoonlijke singer-songwriterfavorieten. En daarin zal met “Drink Ring Jesus” al zeker geen verandering komen. Daarop gaat Simmons immers met veel bravoure voor een beduidend intimistischer geheel. Enkel die fantastische rauw-hees-tedere stem van ‘m, wat gitaar en harmonica en that’s it. En dat werkt echt verschrikkelijk goed ook! Simmons trekt je songgewijs tien nummers lang aan de mouw en weet je ook moeiteloos bij zijn les te houden. Een echte aanrader derhalve dan ook, deze “Drink Ring Jesus”, voor iedereen die houdt van het werk van Steve Earle, de hier elders ook zelf besproken Chris Knight, ja zelfs Ryan Adams, maar dan wel in z’n rustigere momenten.
|06.19.06Go Triad — North Carolina
Sound Advice: Stephen Simmons
“Drink Ring Jesus,” Stephen Simmons’ second release on Locke Creek Records, is a startingly beautiful exploration of our search for redemption among the sacred and the profane. It is simultaneously stark, dark, hopeful and profound. Simmons’ deliciously rich baritone is gravelly and sweet with an epic sadness. His vocals are remniscent of a younger, less embittered Steve Earle or a more melodically articulate, less desolate Richard Buckner. On “Drink Ring Jesus” the only accompaniment to his vocals is his own guitar and an occasional harmonica wail.Simmons is a master at complementing the content and delivery of his lyrics with a delicate and precise finger-picking style. The result is as emotionally sweeping as a symphony performed by a full orchestra. Lyrically, he has an incredible capacity for evoking empathy from his listeners.
As much as Steve Earle will thrust his listener onto Death Row to explore the validity of institutionalized murder, Simmons puts us into the mind of the devil fighting with the Lord for our souls in “Devil’s Work Is Never Done.” Or he’ll seat us at a bar to stare at a painting of a “Cryin’ Elvis” and reflect on the nature of our existence.
His upbringing in rural Tennessee is evident in his songs. His lyrics convey a tangible sense of the geography of the land and the mind. At times, the external and internal landscapes merge as they do in the song “You Give Us:” “Been having problems with my soul/Four way stops I don’t know which way to go/So I go down the trail halfway and turn back/End up nowhere always lost in my tracks.”
In the song “Dante’s Blues No. 7,” Simmons artfully explores the seven deadly sins as they manifest through drink. It takes a particular mastery of metaphor to catapult an audience into a bar room inferno. Stephen Simmons has demonstrated his mastery with subtlety, intelligence and a refreshing lack of pretentiousness.
His bleak and sorrowful songs soon give way to the promise of redemption. The final three songs on “Drink Ring Jesus” lift our spirits and instill hope. “Next Stop Redemption” is a shining beacon of light with lyrics such as “So come on all aboard all you sinners/This train is leaving the station/We may be in Hell tonight/But this journey’s only just begun/You can leave the things you want behind/We can all start anew in that station on high/This train is headed for your salvation/Next stop redemption.”
– Kathy Clark
Stephen Simmons – Drink Ring Jesus
Gitaar, mondharmonica en een stem. Dat zijn de ingrediënten die Stephen Simmons gebruikt op zijn nieuwe cd Drink Ring Jesus. Het is gevaarlijk wat hij doet, want met een niet passende stem of matig gitaarspel val je als singer-songwriter meteen door de mand. Zo niet Simmons, die dus wel prima overweg kan met zijn houten gitaar en die beschikt over een stem die gruizig en tevens een beetje hees klinkt, passend bij de folkcountry die hij in zijn eentje vertolkt. Een maartje is zijn beperkte stembereik: in de hogere regionen gaat hij zwabberen. Simmons heeft in Jezus zijn vriend gevonden, het is de rode draad door zijn werk. Niettemin moet ook hij demonen bevechten, zoals op het veelzeggende prijsliedje Devil´s Work Is Never Done, een muzikaal onderonsje met de duivel. Ook Cryin´Elvis is zo´n mijmermoment, evenals het met zonden doorspekte Dante´s Blues No. 7 en You Give Us, waarop de storyteller zingt: “Been having problems with my soul. Four way stops I don’t know which way to go.So I go down the trail halfway and turn back/End up nowhere always lost in my tracks”. Puur donker is Drink Ring Jesus beslist niet. Ingegeven door zijn geloof biedt Simmons hoop, horen we op Next Stop Redemption: “So come on all aboard all you sinners. This train is leaving the station. We may be in Hell tonight, but this journey has only just begun. You can leave the things you want behind. We can all start a new in that station on high. This train is headed for your salvation, next stop redemption.” Luisterplaatje voor sinners als ons.– Bart Ebisch
|01.10.06 Lucky Dice
STEPHEN SIMMONS Drink Ring Jesus
Twee jaar geleden schreven wij al eens over de uit Tennessee afkomstige Stephen Simmons. Met zijn debuutplaat Last Call, die hij met volledige band opnam maakte hij al indruk, vooral bij liefhebbers van Steve Earle, Chris Knight en aanverwante artiesten. Voor Drink Ring Jesus heeft Stephen alle toeters en bellen weggelaten en dus horen we hier het pure liedje, Stephens warme stem slechts begeleid door 1 akoestische gitaar en af en toe een stukje mondharmonica. En we moeten zeggen dat klinkt werkelijk prachtig, intens en heel persoonlijk. Zo zijn de teksten ook geïnspireerd op de nog altijd actuele strijd tussen goed en slecht. Drank, duisternis, de duivel, hel en verdoemenis of een fatsoenlijk leven, licht, hemel en religie? Zijn dit de keuzes op het kruispunt des levens? Vraagt Stephen zich af. Misschien is er ook nog een klein pad dwars door het maïsveld dat ook nog ergens toe leidt? Drink Ring Jesus staat vol prachtige verhalen die je ongeacht van wat je eigen levenswijze is, hier wonderschoon zijn vertolkt. Daarom hier alleen nog een zinnetje uit één van liedjes op dit album, de rest moet je zelf thuis gaan luisteren. “So come on all aboard all you sinners/This train is leaving the station/We may be in Hell tonight/But this journey’s only just begun/You can leave the things you want behind/We can all start a new in that station on high/This train is headed for your salvation/Next stop redemption.”– Sandra Zuidema
12.01.06 Miles of Music
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus
A man and his guitar better have something to say if he`s going at it alone. The Tennessee-bred Stephen Simmons does, with richly descriptive character and faith driven songs that play in the great tradition of the Texas progressive country movement. His rough-hewn twang-touched vocals and acoustic delivery bring to mind folks like Steve Earle and Ryan Adams, perhaps with more tender touch on the acoustic guitar. His introspective material draws you in through solemn reflection while he seems to be balancing a Christian upbringing with the darker questions and realities of life. His lyrics are imbued with emotional potency as he weaves gospel imagery with outlaw poetry. At times his songs sound like personal prayers. And given his sincerity and humble delivery these songs of faith become palpable and unforced leaving you hopeful that he finds the strength he seeks.
– Robinson, Miles of Music
|05.01.07 MOJO Music Magazine
Stephen Simmons – Drink Ring Jesus (Locke Creek)
Simmons (no relation) follows a fine first album with even more durable goods. On most of these songs – folky in a solo Steve Earle sort of way, though with a softer, sadder voice – he’s a Bible Belt barstool philosopher singing of sin (including the USA’s in Devil’s Work Is Never Done) and redemption. Intelligent, intense, and easy to like.– Sylvie Simmons
03.16.06 Music Row Magazine
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus
I turned handsprings over this Nashville singer-songwriter’s debut CD last year. I remain a major fan. The title tune to his latest continues his explorations on the themes of sin and redemption. It also reminds us of the power that a stark voice and guitar can have. This is a direct hit to the heart.
– Robert K. Ooermann
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus (4) ****
Rounder Europe / Munich
Enregistré en 2005, ce premier album de Stephen Simmons arrive aujourd’hui à nos oreilles. Avant toute chose, il convient d’abroger les éventuelles ambiguïtés. Stephen Simmons ne souffre d’aucun trouble de la personnalité. Non, il ne se prend pas pour Kevin Costner ! Pour les cinéphiles aguerris et fans du beau Kevin (contradiction affligeante), Stephen Simmons était le protagoniste de « The War » (« A Chacun sa guerre »), énième comédie dramatique sur les horreurs (lesquelles) du Vietnam. Pas de lien direct avec Kevin Costner, donc. Par contre, question comédie dramatique, Stephen Simmons (le chanteur), en connaît un bout. C’est triste et drôle à la fois. Comme si Johnny Cash (paix à son âme) avait essayé de chanter le dernier tube mélo de Ryan Adams.« Drink Ring Jesus » s’inscrit dans une logique ecclésiastique. A la droite de Dieu, le Père tout-puissant et, certainement, à la gauche du Saint-Esprit. Cependant, il serait mensonger d’affirmer que la country de Stephen Simmons ait été touchée par la grâce. Nous sommes ici en présence d’une country américaine conventionnelle. Enregistré à Nashville pour faire bien, « Drink Ring Jesus » rejoint les rangs, déjà bien gonflés (mais pas gonflants), d’un genre éculé. Il faudrait aujourd’hui un miracle pour renouveler les codes de cette musique sacralisée par l’homme en noir (cfr. Johnny Cash). Mais on peut faire confiance à Stephen Simmons. Dévot, l’homme attend impatiemment ce prochain miracle…
– Nicolas Alsteen
STEPHEN SIMMONS Drink Ring Jesus (Rounder)
Imagine a world weary blend of Steve Earle, John Prine and Harry Chapin, and you have a rough idea of how the Nashville singer-songwriter sounds. Dusty, acoustic Americana built around themes of faith and redemption, although Simmons makes no apologies for his beliefs given that his own upbringing in the conservative Church of Christ saw musical instruments banned from church this isn’t quite the God bothering album you might expect from songs like Devil’s Work is Never Done, Next Stop Redemption and the title track.At times calling to mind the similarly themed concerns with losers and religion found in Johnny Cash’s catalogue, Simmons sings of lost souls in need of a ‘fixer-upper’ carpenter, of a drunk finding Christ’s face revealed on his beer glass, of the seven deadly sins engendered by drink and of the salvation train stopping off at long abandoned depots on its way back to the eternal terminus.
He even adopts the Devil’s voice to complain that all he ever gets are the ‘poster child souls who think they’re above the fold’ while God takes the poor and the needy with their true hearts.
But you don’t have to have a family Bible by the bedside to get lost in Simmons’s melancholic baritone or share his stained reflections on the tears and travails of life, of losing your tracks, being unable to find the way home, and ultimately doing the best you can in the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
– Mike Davies
03.01.06 Real Roots Cafe
Stephen Simmons, Drink Ring Jesus (Locke Creek Records)
Drink Ring Jesus, van Stephen Simmons komt in een zeer basale, schijnbaar achteloos ontworpen “slipcase”. De verpakking illustreert meteen wat we van deze nieuwe CD mogen verwachten. Muziek die rauw is tot op het bot, waarbij Stephen’s stem de perfecte aanvulling is op zijn gitaar en harmonica. Veel songwriters vinden hun inspiratie in God of Goddeloosheid. Stephen niet minder, want hij is opgevoed “in the Church of Christ”, maar kreeg, net als ons allemaal, veelvuldig andersoortige invloeden. Neem alles op en behoud het goede. Stephen’s levensloop ging ongetwijfeld niet over een lichtend pad, want hij ging zichzelf kritische vragen stellen. Veel van zijn thema’s zijn religieus gedreven; met als resultaat een album over contradicties, paradoxen en “lying, cheating and drinking”. Slotsom: 10 verdomd mooie verhalende songs met titels als Devil’s Work is Never Done en Next Stop Redemption van een eerlijke songsmid met het hart op de juiste plaats. Als je Steve Earle’s Train a Comin en Malcolm Holcombe’s vorig jaar verschenen: I Heard You Knockin op waarde weet te schatten, dan kun je deze daar moeiteloos aan toevoegen.
– Rein van den Berg
06.15.06Rocktown Harrisonburg, VA
DOING THE BEST HE CAN
Singer-songwriter Stephen Simmons uses music to reconcile his demons
Stephen Simmons was standing in a Nashville club when he felt a foot. “It was like someone kicked me in the [butt] and I was just like ‘What the hell am I doing,’” he said. “I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and try to get together a band.”
For Simmons, who’s been writing songs since his teenage years, something about seeing guys his age play their own songs at a small club made him want to quit his job and start scheduling shows. It’s a typical story, in a way. But Simmons, who plays Dave’s Taverna on June 15, was 25 years old before that pain in the posterior.
Even growing up an hour from Nashville, he says it had never occurred to him that he could make his living playing country songs. “You’d think by college I would have been exposed to it,” he said. But he wasn’t. As a youngster, his family belonged to the conservative Church of Christ. As a college student at Middle Tennessee State University, he worked nights at a factory, which didn’t leave much time for bourbon-fueled nights on the town. He was out of school, working as a supervisor at an electric co-op, making good money and starting to settle down when he got his calling. When he quit his job, his family thought he was crazy.
Now 32, Simmons is a full-time singer-songwriter who supplements his earnings by substitute teaching and doing odd jobs. Religion is the dominant theme in his latest album, “Drink Ring Jesus.” For example, the title track is about seeing the image of Christ in a drink ring, “The Devil’s Work Is Never Done,” a conversation with Satan, a la C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” They’re subjects Simmons says he struggles with, trying to reconcile his conservative Christian upbringing (his Church of Christ congregation even prohibits musical instruments in the church) with his life and music.
So far, it seems like the key is to take it easier on himself, he says. When he was young, he was a good Christian boy. Then again, “You don’t really have many temptations when you’re 12 or 13,” he said. As he got older, he started sinning, and that led him to give up for a while, Simmons says. “There’s this tendency to think that once you’re gone, you’re gone,” he said.
Once feeling gone, now he’s writing songs like “Next Stop Redemption.” “We’re all human, we’ve all got our flaws,” he said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can.”
– Martin Cizmar
12.01.06 The Irish Times
Stephen Simmons | Drink Ring Jesus
Stephen Simmons is a singer-songwriter from the small town of Woodbury, Tennessee. According to his website, “his mother was a schoolteacher and his father held a factory job. (In his family, they were the first generation that didn’t work the farm) Humble and soft-spoken, Stephen at first seems to exemplify this rural, Church of Christ upbringing,” And then you listen to these haunting struggles with faith and living and you hear a man confronting his angels and demons head on. Drink Ring Jesus is deliberately shorn of any ornamentation – we are into baring of the soul territory – with only acoustic guitar and harmonica for comfort. Simmons sings with a questioning and colourful intensity, drawn equally by the bar and the belfry. This is not about religion; it’s about searching for and then questioning the things we believe.
– Joe Breen
|03.11.06 The Nashville Rage
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus (Locke Creek)
He may look like Jay Farrar and draw comparisons to Steve Earle, but Nashville’s Stephen Simmons proved on his 2004 debut, Last Call, that he was capable of carving out his own rough-hewn sound from the foundation that Earle and other Americana icons have laid down.Simmons now follows up Last Call with Drink Ring Jesus, an all-acoustic affair that centers almost exclusively around the theme of redemption. It’s not exactly a religious album in the CCM sense, but there’s no question where Simmons’ characters pull their faith from. Drunks, loners and other lost souls seek and find solace in most of these songs, but usually in unconventional ways.
The presentation is as stark and serious as you’d expect from Simmons’ notoriously grumpy doppleganger, Farrar. But the world-weary sorts Simmons sings about should find the kind of hope he offers up easier to swallow than a sermon.
03.11.06 The Nashville Scene
STEPHEN SIMMONS / Drink Ring Jesus
Simmons’ second album strips away the clangy roots-rock of his attention-getting debut. This time out, he focuses primarily on solo acoustic guitar and his deep, resonant voice, which alternates between a dryly sardonic tone and the clear, unfettered directness of a midnight confessional. Drink Ring Jesus, the title of his new collection, sums up the yin-yang of his subject matter; his songs lay bare the struggle of moral men fighting with fever dreams and the pull of alcohol and other personal demons. He’s a first-rate storyteller whose experience seems beyond his young years, and he’s already building the kind of catalog that will carry him for the long haul.
– Michael McCall
STEPHEN SIMMONS Drink Ring Jesus
Locke Creek Records
(UMC.org)—If Johnny Cash were alive, it isn’t hard to imagine him recording selections from Stephen Simmons’ Drink Ring Jesus, an album that takes a rebel approach to declaring the Gospel. The singer’s bedraggled twang, reminiscent of Steve Earle’s but lazier, doesn’t come close to Cash’s commanding vocal presence, but his voice as a songwriter is worthy of attention. The link to Cash’s work here is primarily to the Man in Black’s latter-day records, both in Simmons’ simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and his knack for lyrics that address religion in a secular context (much like Cash’s version of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” did). In fact, it’s highly unfortunate that a voice like Cash’s is unavailable, because Simmons’ lo-fi versions of his own melodically spare work are unlikely to connect with more than a modest audience. The songs surely won’t connect with most traditional Christian listeners, despite they fact that they say plenty about God—and God’s competition—in the 21st century.
Simmons’ unique, even courageous, presentation is one that speaks of, as well as to, the dry and weary wanderers who are dulled by their workaday lives and either put off or intimidated by the cultivated spit-shine of organized religion—the notion that you have to get yourself together before God will take notice. Simmons’ most effective weapon is his ongoing awareness of God’s presence, coupled with a refusal to distance himself from the sin- and doubt-prone stragglers about (and along with) whom he sings. The title track explores a man’s tabloid-style fascination with the Christ-faced imprint left by his beverage glass, and the resulting conviction that God, however abstract, becomes visible—and therefore increasingly real—to everyday Joes. Elsewhere, that glass, “filled with lust,” belongs to a man who slips “on a quart of sloth” and who “tried a shot of envy—now I think all things should belong to me.” Though Simmons closes the disc with the certainty that his misguided characters are not beyond Jesus’ grasp, he first walks the wiggly line of faith in the face of confusion and self-reliance. “Been having problems with my soul/ Four way stops and don’t know which way to go,” he confesses between searching conversations with a God he nonetheless trusts is listening: “Jesus, you sent for all of us in peasants’ clothes/ With the skill of a carpenter for our fixer-upper souls/ And Lord, I don’t know just where eternity goes/ Seems like just yesterday I was washing clean this same soul.”
“Next Stop Redemption” not only redeems the album’s untraditional version of Christian doctrine, but revives the well-worn salvation-as-train conceit with symbolism-packed lines like “This train is trying to find its way home/ Picking up people like a lost and found/ Hitting every depot that’s long been abandoned.” Perhaps most interesting, though, is the way Simmons employs Satan’s perspective in certain songs. Whenever Simmons uses profanity or addresses religious hypocrisy and the like, he does it through the voice of the Accuser, who pitifully whines that his only conquests are “These poster child souls who think they’re above the fold/ You know the ones with their high profiles/ But they got no timber in their souls.” If lines like these are provocative, others are surprisingly affirming, even as they roll off the Prince of Darkness’ forked tongue. While bemoaning his thankless task of capturing souls, Satan confesses in an unguarded moment that “Hell ain’t a kingdom, it’s a hole,” and turns in the record’s most devastating testimony about how far God’s mercy extends to the Great Unwashed: “You guys always seem to get all the good ones/ The poor and needy downtrodden masses/ Sometimes the whole deck’s stacked against ‘em/ But still I can’t break ‘em, their hearts are the truest of the pack.”
If Satan himself can speak truth in these decidedly outside-the-Christian-box lyrics, so can Stephen Simmons, whose tilting glass—though it threatens to make a sloppy mess of mainstream Christian thought—ultimately overflows with spiritual refreshment for the truly thirsty on Drink Ring Jesus.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.
– Steve Morley
12.01.06UNCUT Magazine (UK)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Drink Ring Jesus (Rounder Europe)
“Raised in a devout Christian household, Simmons’ songs mirror a struggle between faith and devilry – indeed, much of this fine record sounds like a long prayer in the dark. 2004’s “Last Call” was a full-band affair, but here he strips everything back to bare acoustic guitar and harmonica, his baked-in-clay voice owing as much to Kris Kristofferson and Guy Clark as it does Jeffery Foucault. “Devils Work Is Never Done” is, allegedly, already a favourite of Neil Young, while “Carpenter Skills” finds him adrift in a dusty wilderness. Vivid, intelligent and soulful.”
– Rob Hughes