Something In Between

something in between

songs:illinois

an (indie) folk, alt-country, americana, singer/songwriter music blog

Stephen Simmons is back. I wrote about his song “Drink Ring Jesus” last year and was just agag over it’s lyrical content. Since then Stephen’s become the talk of the americana world and become an important part of it’s immediate future.

“All The Time I’ve Got” is one of the slower, less brawny, songs I’ve heard from the new album Something In Between. It’s a beautiful example of all that this genre is capable of. Pick the new record up here at Village Records.

~~~

11.13.07 Alt Country NL (The Netherlands)
Stephen Simmons | Something In Between

Something In Between (Rounder Europe/Munich) is alweer de derde cd van de jonge singer-songwriter uit Nashville. Alhoewel jong, relatief dan hè. In ieder geval jong genoeg om vele, vele voorbeelden te hebben, waarvan ik van de senioren Clark en Van Zandt noem en van de iets minder oudere Earle. Stephen Simmons <http://www.stephensimmonsmusic.com/> heeft onderdak gevonden bij een Nederlands label, maar dat heeft hem er niet van weerhouden Something In Between op te nemen in de befaamde House Of David Studios in zijn hometown. Het is een zeer ambitieus album. Allereerst is er de prachtige, warme sound waarin instrumenten en stem heel goed tot hun recht komen. Voorts worden de instrumenten bespeeld door een kwantitatief, maar ook kwalitatief indrukwekkende band. Naast Simmons’ sidekick, de multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin, moeten ook David Briggs (piano, orgel, Wurlitzer) en Al Perkins (pedal steel) beslist genoemd worden. Beider instrumenten zijn prominent in het geluidsbeeld opgenomen. Dan zijn er natuurlijk nog de composities van Simmons. Aanvankelijk vond ik ze vlak en weinigzeggend, maar na wat luisterbeurten springen er, moet ik zeggen, een fiks aantal positief uit. New Scratches met gierende slide en rollend orgel is een lekker countryrocknummer, evenals Long Road. Mooi aangeklede ballads zijn er ook in de vorm van We’ll See en afsluiter All The Time I’ve Got. Maar voor mij is het hoogtepunt de schitterende tranentrekker – mede dankzij de melodramatische strijkers – Cloudy In L.A. Een erg fraaie compositie, en dito uitvoering. Verder klinkt Simmons’ stem als van knoestig hout en twangen de gitaren er lustig op los. Something In Between is gewoon klassieke countryrock, en wellicht Stephen Simmons’ klassieke album.– Wiebren Rijkeboer

01.01.08 Americana-UK
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between

Though he might bear a vague resemblance to Jay Farrar (it could be the eyes) or a young Steve Earle (heard in his soft yet distinctive southern twang), Stephen Simmons doesn’t look like a man who has actually lived the part of his own songs. You’d expect this Tennessee-native art major-turned-songwriter, who sounds and writes like a man of constant sorrow, to look at least a little worn, a little red-eyed and hungover from a lifetime of searching for answers between the bars, churches and open roads. In this exclusive interview, Americana UK talks to the rising star of Nashville’s americana-scene about Jesus, Nashville and ‘Something In Between’, his stunning third album which features guest appearances from, among other, Gram Parsons’s sideman, the lapsteel-legend Al Perkins.

I’ve spoken to a lot of different artists over the years, and you sort of get the impression that they’re all in it for one of three reasons – the money, the opportunity to tell the world what’s on their mind or because it’s the only thing they know how to do. Which of these should we file you under?

 

Well, for starters, I think it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before I’m even going to make close to what I did just working a normal job for a living back years ago. Being a folky troubadour does not have good benefits. I can do other things well enough I suppose. Well enough to make a living. But making a living isn’t exactly living either is it? This is the only thing I’m truly passionate about. If you’d have asked me as a teenager what I wanted to do, I would’ve said “drawing and writing comics”. Maybe in 15 years, I’ll be focused on writing short stories. I think because I am so interested in History and Literature, it’s likely I would’ve eventually gone back to school and become a professor of some sort. That would still let me get up in front of a captive audience and run my mouth from time to time. But for the time being, writing songs, recording albums, and touring is my main form of expression. So I guess telling the world what’s on my mind is the closest camp I would fall in.

Your previous album was called ‘Drink Ring Jesus’, and with songs like ‘Forgive Me Father’, ‘The Devil’s Work Is Never Done’ and ‘Baptism’, there’s a lot of spirituality in your songs. How big a part does faith play in your music?

Hmmm….faith. Well, it might be well documented at this point, but I was brought up in a very strict Church of Christ in a small southern Tennessee town. My beliefs I like to think have evolved as I’ve grown older. But I’m a very spiritual person by nature. I do believe in the spirit…in magic…in miracles…in an afterlife, and so on. And that’s all pretty much attributed to faith. My own confidence in the church and religion…well, that’s another matter. But I’ve always been someone who prays. But I’m turned off and offended by hipocritical, judgemental types. As I recall that’s why Jesus made Paul head of the church. Because he had the least faith. But you know, it takes faith to be an artist as well. It takes alot of faith to think that your artistic vision is important enough that people will want to hear it. Faith that you should be following your bliss. Faith that you shouldn’t worry about what society thinks you should be doing. I don’t think you can underestimate how Faith affects every aspect of your life.

Yet your new album, “Something In Between”, seem to focus more on romantic issues?

“Something In Between” was meant to be a statement about emotional relationships. Scratches and scars if you will. And like most songwriters, the first song I ever wrote I’m sure was about a girl. Matter of fact, probably the first 50 or so probably were. I like albums to make sense, to tell a story. This is a different story than my previous work.

“All The Time I’ve Got” deals with the same subject that has been the cornerstone of Americana for ages – solitude, the vastness of America, the road and the long drives at night. Has being a singer, traveling from city to city in a cold van made you a man in complete peace with yourself?

Yeah, in so many ways that song was the obvious one to end with. The older I get the more and more that song rings true. I don’t know if I’m at total peace with myself. But certainly more than I was as a younger man. This is who I am. And it’s a good feeling to take a deep breath and say….”I’m OK”. I feel like I grew up as a weird awkward over-analytical kid, never feeling like I felt in. I embrace the solitude and the long drives, it’s part of who I am and the cloth I’m cut from. “All The Time I’ve Got” is more a sweet good night kiss to my lifestyle.

Al Perkins! Tell us about working with Al Perkins. This guy has played with Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman & Stephen Stills and now you. How much in awe does one feel with him behind the pedal steel?

Al Perkins is….well, Al Perkins. I was so happy he was able to a part of the project. To me, he and David Briggs who plays piano, b-3, organ, wurly, rhodes etc. really made that record sound so special musically. Having a younger rhythm section and various other accompanyment to go against the history and experience of those two just gave it a special mix I thought. Those guys really are living, breathing legends, so they just make a 2007 record so grounded in rock and country’s roots.

You’re based in Nashville. With people like Matthew Ryan, Thad Cockrell and Griffin House living there, has Nashville become the place to go for the rising stars of americana? And do you feel that musicians like you get treated with the respect you deserve?

I love Nashville. I think having such a vast creative music community is part of what makes it so nice to live here for me. I feel like I’m always around my kind of folks. I don’t know if it’s the place to be for Americana folks, but it sure seems that way more and more. But we aren’t the money makers the hat-acts are, so I don’t think the business community will ever embrace us the same way. That’s a game you gotta be willing to play if that’s what you want in a career. It’s not my bag of tea, but I know many folks trying to go down that road, and I don’t fault them for it if that’s what they love to do. And to be fair – even though mainstream country has been pretty well documented about it’s ‘posers’ and ‘pretenders’, I’ll be the first to admit, there are alot of Americana acts out there who aren’t that authentic either. Which is unfortunate.

Are you taking a stab at the state of country music in “Cryin’ Elvis” from your previous album? It does after all mourn the loss of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

It deals with the decline of country music and the decline of all our heroes in general. From Jesus to Elvis to Hank and Johnny to our beloved comic book heroes like Captain Marvel and Captain America and the first real American literary heroe, Natty Bumpo. Maybe America’s decline too a little. Things don’t sound as good as they used to and that era’s over. I’m reminded of a John Steinbeck line from “East of Eden”; “Oh, but strawberries will never taste so good again and the thighs of women have lost their clutch.”

Final question: Who should we keep our eyes on on the rising Nashville scene?

I always tell people to check out my friend Mack Starks. He’s one of my favorite singer/songwriters here in Nashville. He used to be in the band Farmer Not So John. Rod Picott and Kevin Gorden are a few other friends I always try to help spread the word about. There are many others I’ll remember as soon as I hit the ‘send’ button I’m sure.

– Interview by Soren McGuire


10.19.07 Americana-UK
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between
(Rounder Europe 2007)
Solid Set from Tennessee Songwriter

Listening to Stephen Simmons’ third CD is a bit like doing a who’s who of classic singer/songwriter influences – Rodney Crowell immediately springs to mind on the big chords and throbbing bass of the opening “Don’t Mind Me”, the shifting minor chord progressions and rippling piano figures of “Long Road’ are pure Bruce Hornsby with some Darrell Scott overtones, and elsewhere the ghosts of Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and a host of other worthies are ever present.All of this in no way suggests,however, that plagiarism is rife here,as Simmons’ tunes retain enough of their own identity to make this a mostly solid collection of performances, held together by an excellent production job from Richard McLaurin.There are a couple of obvious aims at the “big hat” country market, and “Blues on a Sunny Day” in particular has all the hallmarks of a Nashville hit if taken up by the “right” people, or maybe even for Simmons himself, although some reworking and a much more bland production might be required. On the minus side, some of the lyrical content shows a tendency towards sloppines (“you’re a lot like a jacket I put on to stay warm”), and a few songs, most notably “Cloudy in LA” exhibit some potentially terminal MOR tendencies which, if given too much rein, could send a well above average writer and performer down a less stimulating, albeit probably more commercially rewarding road.

– John Hinshelwood

09.01.07 CTRL ALT COUNTRY (Belgium)
Something In Between
Locke Creek / Rounder Europe / Munich (4 stars) ****

We hebben het hier al vanaf dag één gezegd en we kunnen eigenlijk ook naar aanleiding van ’s mans nieuwste “Something In Between” niet anders dan dat bevestigen: Stephen Simmons is een hele grote meneer! Zowel zijn fenomenale Europese debuutplaat “Last Call” als het vorig jaar verschenen “Drink Ring Jesus” en het onlangs door CD Baby bij wijze van download van de vergetelheid geredde “The Superstore” gaven al aan, dat Simmons één van de interessantste nieuwe Americana singer-songwriters van de laatste jaren was. En “Something In Between” doet daar alleen nog maar een schepje bovenop. Het is alleszins zijn best klinkende plaat so far. Had Simmons ditmaal een wat groter budget ter beschikking of heeft hij gewoon wat meer aandacht besteed aan de muzikale invulling van zijn liedjes, wij zouden het niet weten, maar het is wel een feit, dat de elf songs op “Something In Between” een stuk warmer klinken dan zo ongeveer alles wat hij eerder deed. En dat hangt ons inziens voor een groot stuk samen met de veelvuldig aanwezige toetsenbijdragen van David Briggs, het pedal steel- en fiddlewerk van respectievelijk Al Perkins en Tammy Rogers en de knappe gitaarinterventies van Richard McLaurin en Joe McMahan. Die zorgen ervoor, dat de schuurpapieren stem van Simmons hier nóg beter tot haar recht komt. En dat heel wat van de als naar goede gewoonte weer erg knappe songs van de man plots bijzonder radiogeniek overkomen. Iets wat overigens zowel voor de rockende deuntjes erop als “New Scratches” en “Long Road” als voor het toch eerder voor Simmons karakteristieke rustigere materiaal à la “We’ll See”, “Blues On A Sunny Day” (Dé gedroomde singlekandidaat!) of “Hey” van toepassing is.

Gewoon een héél erg mooie plaat overall!

07.09.08Creative Loafing Sarasota

Like any good alt-country poet worth his whiskey, Stephen Simmons pens confessional tunes about being torn between the bar and the Bible. The Tennessee native sounds like Steve Earle’s long-lost son on tracks like “Don’t Mind Me,” “Long Road” and “Devil’s Work is Never Done,” in which he deadpans, “It looks so easy/Sounds so damn simple/Think these souls fall right out of the sky/Jesus, back off, this one’s mine.” Elsewhere, he evokes the best of Ryan Adams, as with “New Scratches,” an ace cut off his 2007 release, Something In Between. Weary and wondering if redemption exists, Simmons has a knack for small town vignettes without resorting to platitudes.– Amanda Schurr

Fall 2007 Heaven Magazine
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between ***1/2

Lock Creek Records / Rounder

Ook de derde mag er zijn!
Na het ingetogen Ring Drink Jesus keert Stephen Simmons weer terug naar de muziek van zijn Last Call, zijn tweede album. Overigens beschouwt Simmons dit album als zijn werkelijke begin. Something In Between werd door Richard McLaurin met vaardige hand geproduceerd. Krachtig klinkt het orgel van oudgediende David Briggs in Hold You Today. Mooi rond is dan weer de snare van Ken Lewis in We’ll See. Net zoals altijd moet je even wennen aan Simmons. Eerst denk je: is dit alles? En dan groeien de liedjes je oren in. De enige kritiek die je op deze wederom sterke plaat van Simmons kunt hebben is dat hij hier en daar bijna te gelikt klinkt. Kwestie van smaak?

– Wim Boluijt
11.23.07 icWALES (UK)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between


Nashville singer-songwriter Stephen Simmons has been compared to everyone from Johnny Cash to Ryan Adams.

His voice and reflective storytelling are not beyond similarity but despite his warm and earthy vocal tone, his brand of Americana also carries a more mainstream melodic sensibility.

There are moments that also recall a mellower Steve Earle but you get the impression that the full band arrangements that accompany Simmons for most of the record have softened some of the edges.

Standout Tracks: We’ll See, All The Time I’ve Got

– Christopher Rees, Western Mail

12.01.07 Maverick Magazine (UK)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between
Relationship analysis with tunes

 

SOMETHING IN BETWEEN is a remarkably ‘musical’ album. That may sound like a slightly damning thing to say about a songwriter’s record, but it’s the first thing that strikes you about it. There’s no solo acoustic guitar going on, nothing is stripped down to the bone, instead there’s a lovely full band feel that recalls Jackson Browne’s sound, updated a little. This can be heard throughout the album, notably on New Scratches, first cousin to Cut It Away from Browne’s LAWYERS IN LOVE, but little hints pop up all over the place.

But Simmons’ songs aren’t overshadowed by the music. SOMETHING IN BETWEEN is an album about relationships, new, old, struggling, failed, and while Simmons’ world is not necessarily a happy one, it’s one we all inhabit to some extent, and he both illuminates it and offers hope and justification for the lives led in it. He is a poet of the prosaic, and in so being reveals it to be not so prosaic at all under the surface. Though he harvests familiar fields to glean his subject matter he has a way with a line, a couplet or a verse that cuts to the heart of the matter. Take “Tonight my heart has got brand new scratches baby / and you must think new scratches look good on me’ (New Scratches) or the knowing guilt of “And babe you’re a lot like a jacket / that I put on to keep warm / but I’ll take you off when I feel / the rays of the sun and their warmth’ (Down Tonight), just two amongst many equally good.

Simmons sound is a little slicker than that of the bulk of his contemporaries, which makes it easy on the ear, but his music is no less real or affecting for it, and SOMETHING IN BETWEEN is well worth seeking out.

—JS

07.01.08 MOJO Music Magazine (UK)
Stephen Simmons – Something In Between (Rounder Europe)

Not the footballer, nor this columnist’s country cousin, but a singer-songwriter from Tennessee. If this doesn’t quite match up to his excellent Drink Ring Jesus – its lost-love songs, though well-crafted, sound a touch samey and the band a bit full-on – there are still some very good ballads (We’ll See; Long Road) and downtempo, melodic country rock (Cloudy In L.A.)– Sylvie Simmons

01.30.08 Nashville City Paper

 

Something in Between (Americana) from singer/songwriter Stephen Simmons is appropriately titled, as Simmons music could accurately be dubbed introspective pop, rock-tinged folk, or country with touches of the blues, depending on the selection. He’s effective with sentimental fare (“Hold You Today,” “We’ll See, “All The Time I’ve Got,”) or harder, more lyrically intense material (“Long Road,” “Down Tonight,” “Blues On A Sunny Day.”) His instrumental collaborators include the very busy Richard McLaurin (multiple guitars, plus organ and mellotron) plus keyboardist David Briggs, electric guitarist Joe McMahan, Al Perkins on pedal steel, bassist Billy Mercer and drummer Ken Lewis. Mixed and produced by McLaurin at the House of David studios locally, Something in Between has songs to make you think, others to amuse or entertain, and most importantly displays the writing and singing acumen of Stephen Simmons.
Sept/Oct 2007 Properganda
Stephen Simmons | Something In Between

First coming to our attention with the raw and passionate Drink Ring Jesus, that pitched Simmons’s sad-eyed-folky drawl against minimal guitar and harmonica, this year’s model comes bathed in layers of sound.  His voice is still affecting, but the band setting gives him the chance to develop melodic ideas to underpin his bar room philosophy.

He carries the weight of a good church upbringing that hasn’t quite stood the tests of adult life with the questions and hypocrisies that crop up all too often.  Struggles to stay honest, to stay on the good side and maintain dignity spill out through aching ballads like Long Road and Blues On A Sunny Day, but defiance also bristles through stompers like New Scratches.

Guitarist Richard McLaurin also produces, setting a tone somewhere between Steve Earl, Jackson Browne and Ryan Adams.  You get the sense that the songs will stand a solo reading as well and the closer All The Time I’ve Got especially hints at that.

– SC

12.01.07 Q Magazine (UK)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between

 

Simmons was born in Tennessee to parents who wholeheartedly embraced the Bible belt’s values. Caught between his upbringing and a taste for the dark side, his conflicting, reflective world – “We’ll See” is one of the great hangover songs – bears a resemblance to the wild young Steve Earle in both style and content, without ever compromising his own voice.

09.05.07 ROOTSTIME (Belgium)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between
Label : Locke Creek Records / Rounder Europe
Distr. : Munich Records

Ik herinner me dat één van de eerste CD’s die ik voor Rootstime mocht bespreken “Last Call” was van Stephen Simmons, een album dat onze Freddy al eerder onder de loep had genomen toen de CD in 2004 in Amerika verscheen, maar dat eind 2006 voor het eerst op de Europese markt werd uitgebracht, ongeveer tegelijkertijd met zijn nieuwe 2006-CD “Drink Ring Jesus”. Een andere herinnering was dat ik “Last Call” een uitstekende plaat vond van een singer-songwriter die mooie liedjes in het country-pop-rootsrockgenre schreef voorzien van aangrijpende en doordachte teksten. En zie nu, vandaag ligt hier de nieuwste schijf van Stephen Simmons voor me op tafel ter bespreking. Ook nu prijs ik me weer gelukkig dat ik werd uitverkoren om wat te vertellen over “Something In Between”, een CD die alweer 11 uitstekende moderne songs bevat die zo allemaal op de gespecialiseerde radiozenders door de ether kunnen gejaagd worden. Onderwerp van de teksten is de complexiteit van de menselijke relaties, de veranderende emoties die je op diverse momenten in relaties ondergaat en alles wat daarbij komt kijken. Af en toe doet de stem en de muziek van Stephen Simmons me denken aan Dwight Yoakam of aan Neil Young, vooral als de mondharmonica wordt bovengehaald, zoals hij al meteen doet in het eerste nummer “Don’t Mind Me”. Muzikaal zijn alle nummers stuk voor stuk volwaardige producties geworden: “Hold You Today”, “New Scratches” en “Hey” en “Go Easy On Me” klinken heel catchy en swingend met gitaar en orgel als weerkerende sfeermakers. Wat rustiger gaat het er aan toe in de ballads “We’ll See” (over donkere wolken die boven een relatie hangen),”Long Road” (over wantrouwen in een relatie), “Down Tonight” (wat een prachtsong over hartverscheurende schuldgevoelens) en afsluiter “All The Time I’ve Got”. Stephen Simmons werd als zoon van een fabrieksarbeider en een onderwijzeres opgevoed in Woodbury nabij Nashville, Tennessee, de bakermat van de countrymuziek. Vanzelfsprekend kan je die invloeden dan ook niet wegdenken uit de muziek die hij later is gaan schrijven en waarmee hij op weg is om een grote mijnheer in het genre te worden. “Something In Between” werd opgenomen in een studio in Nashville, Tennessee waar in het verleden mensen als Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Joe Cocker en B.B. King al muziek voor het nageslacht vereeuwigden. Misschien is er in de toekomst nog een plaatsje vrij in deze galerij der groten voor dit nieuwe talent. Zeer mooie plaat en zeker geen tussendoortje. Ik ga ze meteen nog eens opzetten.
(valsam)

07.09.08Sarasota Speaks
Master Storyteller Stephen Simmons to Perform for WSLR – Friday 7/11

Alt Country Artist Stephen Simmons to perform for WSLR Born and raised in the small town of Woodbury Tennessee, Simmons was exposed, at an early age, to a strict, Church of Christ upbringing. “When you’re raised in the Church of Christ, if you’re sensitive at all, it leaves you with a lot to struggle with”, explains Simmons. This sense of struggle is revealed in his songs, which collectively portray the tension between a life of rural simplicity and the opportunities and temptations represented by the city. His latest release, Something in Between, is appropriately titled, as Simmons music could accurately be dubbed introspective pop, rock-tinged folk, or country with touches of the blues, depending on the selection. Simmons will play a benefit concert for WSLR-LP 96.5, Sarasota’s community radio station on Friday, July 11th at Mother’s Musical Bakery, 6525 Superior Avenue.

Simmons writes moving, sharply detailed lyrics about small-town people who spend their lives sitting in church pews or on barstools – and often both. He uses these settings to evocatively portray individuals seeking transcendence or relief while caught in internal conflict, and to talk about the influence families, religion, temptation, and just plain boredom can have on a soul. And, like the best songwriters, he can illustrate how one bad choice, or a series of them, can reverberate long after the person realizes his or her mistake. Working around an acoustic base, but with a rocker’s swagger, Simmons has drawn comparisons to Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen and other master storytellers.

12.19.07 The Irish World
Barstool Philosopher –
Stephen Simmons ponders life and love with honesty on ‘Somewhere In Between’

Singer-songwriter Stephen Simmons (who pedals a mix of country, folk and Americana) was raised in a small town in Tennessee, his family the first generation that didn’t work on the farm. Now a singer-songwriter based in Nashville (where else) Stephen’s creative vision doesn’t stop at reflections of rural America. The tracks on his new album, Something In Between, tussle with existential realities familiar to all of us, whether we live in quiet countryside or noisy city: redemption, heartbreak, hangovers and the loneliness of the road.

Like his previous albums, where his sound has been compared to both Johnny Cash and Ryan Adams, ‘Something In Between’ combines a gift for musicianship with unashamed artistic honesty. ‘Don’t Mind Me,’ for instance, takes a jaded glance towards the dangers of drunken conversation and the desperation of a bar-room troubadour. “And don’t mind me,” he sings, “Just keep it moving along/ The last thing in this world that I need/ Is a bar full of yapping jaws/ And don’t mind me/ Man I’ll pay when I’m done/ Already owed everybody/ Before I ever begun.” Simmons is intense – but he’s extremely
likeable with it.

Revealing influences and songwriting prowess akin to a Steve Earle or a Jackson Browne, ‘Something In Between’ gets down to the nitty gritty of human relationships.  The title track looks at the shifting emotions everyone feels at different stages of a relationship. In ‘We’ll See’, there’s a dark cloud hanging over a new connection. Then, in what could be Stephen’s most confessional work to date, there’s the world-weary lover and his collection of new scars in the rocky ‘New Scratches.’

– Shelley Marsden

02.07.08 The Nashville Scene
Off the Straight and Narrow
Records from Stephen Simmons and Thad Cockrell both take artistic license with their spiritual backgrounds

Something in Between
Stephen Simmons (Americana Records)For singer-songwriters like Stephen Simmons and Thad Cockrell, a Southern evangelical Christian upbringing doesn’t necessitate sticking to a straight and narrow musical path. Over the course of several recordings each, they’ve brought a little imagination to the traditions they’ve inherited. This time Simmons’ guilt-laden souls aren’t wrestling with heaven and hell so much as romance, and Cockrell has released the spiritual uplift that’s been bubbling beneath the surface all along.

Not that the two sound alike or even espouse the same beliefs, but they both make country-influenced music and have church-going in their blood—Simmons grew up in the Church of Christ denomination, and Cockrell is the son of a Southern Baptist minister. And both just released new recordings that explore new spiritual directions.

God and the devil loom large on Simmons’ first two proper releases. A desperate dualism haunts Last Call, and most of the characters in the 16 songs poison their relationships with dirty hands and guilty consciences. Follow-up Drink Ring Jesus bores beneath the surface in duels between good and evil to compelling and insightful results—there’s even a song written from the devil’s perspective on reeling in a soul on “Devil’s Work Is Never Done.” On both albums, Simmons injects the urgency of the pulpit, mined from his experience growing up in Woodbury, Tenn., into storylines of down-and-out folks.

“Half of the service was [the preacher] sweating and spitting out fire and brimstone,” Simmons says. “It would get so hard that people [were] moved to get up and go down front, and that meant everybody was going to be late for lunch, because somebody hadn’t been true and they would tell what they’d done. Maybe there’s something cathartic about going [to the altar]. Maybe everybody else is like, ‘OK, I feel much better now. We got that out of the way—let’s go eat.’ ”

He got so used to that sort of fervency that he expected it most everywhere. “I remember moving and going to a really big church somewhere on West End and feeling kind of ripped off because nobody chewed me out,” he says.

Simmons’ latest, Something In Between, isn’t about spiritual wrestling so much as sorting through the rubble of relationships. It’s as if, for the moment, he’s purged the thoughts of hellfire from his system.

“You write a lot more songs about relationships—or most people do—than you do about demons and stuff like that,” he says. “For a long time, it was tied really closely to those themes. I don’t know if that’s just that phase I was going through. Anybody that absorbs all that stuff—I think you have to work it out somehow.”

But not surprisingly, Simmons’ relationship songs have a soul-searching element too. “I think sometimes it’s the same theme of guilt and learning how to forgive yourself when you haven’t lived up,” he says. Take “Go Easy On Me,” a straight-ahead heartland rock song that beseeches whomever might be listening to “Go easy ’cause I’m trying / Can’t make up for the last time / Couldn’t fix it if I tried.”

It may seem like Simmons has followed a direct route away from spiritual preoccupations, but the timeline’s not that simple. Never intending the demo-like Drink Ring Jesus to be a full-fledged album, Simmons ended up slipping it in between Last Call and the then-in-progress Something In Between. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just went even one more step off that cliff on the religion thing with [Drink Ring Jesus], so when I do get this [new] one out it’s going to really seem like I completely swung back around,” he says.

Even across different subject matter, Simmons’ songwriting has a ragged realism and human empathy from album to album. A lot of the scenes unfold in bars or bedrooms. His voice has a rubbed-raw quality and his melodies scrape the earth.

“Even on the stuff that deals with spirituality—I definitely feel more comfortable with the word ‘spirituality’ than ‘religion’—there’s not anything that’s even slightly judgmental, because that’s what I kind of cringe [at] about mainstream religion—the judgmental aspect—having felt guilty and been made to feel guilty for a long time,” Simmons says. “But I’m a part of that too—you have to want to be made to feel guilty.”

“Obviously [songs] still come out like that,” he says. “It’s not like you completely move away from it.”

– Jewly Hight


01.01.08 The Nashville Scene
STEPHEN SIMMONS / Nashville Scene Critics Pick
 

Last we heard from Stephen Simmons, he had one thing on his mind (or two, really)—Jesus and the Devil. On 2006’s Drink Ring Jesus, he was wrestling with religion of the thorn-in-your-side, beer-in-your-hand variety, armed only with his coarse, raw-edged baritone—which bears a resemblance to Steve Earle’s in its texture and range—and acoustic guitar. Before that, Simmons worked a tug of war between carnality and spirituality on 2004’s Last Call, interspersing acoustic tracks with a country-rooted full-band sound. His brand new album Something In Between—released last year in Europe—represents a shift: It’s a different sort of heartache (the kind lovers inflict on each other) and a different sound (more firmly planted in heartland rock territory). But Simmons has his constants: The songs are still thoroughly down-to-earth and, as the opening track, “Don’t Mind Me,” establishes, he’s still got a beer in hand. With the Wrights and Jason Eady. 9 p.m. at Mercy Lounge– Jewly Hight

12.01.07UNCUT Magazine (UK)
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Something In Between
Third album from grainy US warbler
 

Beautiful as it often was, Simmons’ album from last year, Drink Ring Jesus was almost unremittingly bleak. Strung out over softly plucked acoustic guitar, Simmons’ songs flickered like dim bulbs in an empty church. Something In Between finds the Nashville man broadening the sound with mid-tempo rock (“Go Easy On Me”) and some classy country chug (“Cloudy In LA”), but mostly it’s gruff folk pickings in the vein of Steve Earle or Ray Wylie Hubbard. The great Al Perkins adds pedal steel to these sinister rumbles, acting as counterweight to Simmons’ dark tales of escape and despair.

02.08.08The Washington Post

Stephen Simmons isn’t related to anyone famous, but he sounds so much like Steve Earle that they could be nephew and uncle. That’s not a bad thing, for not many singers achieve such a confident, full-bodied sound while delivering conversational confessions. Simmons’s songwriting on his fourth album,Something in Between, differs from Earle’s in its emphasis on such classic country fare as broken marriages and drunken regrets. It’s odd to hear those themes set against the Dylanesque folk-rock arrangements fueled by producer David Briggs’s organ and Simmons’s harmonica, but it works. The Nashville singer-songwriter never whines and always offers a clear-eyed assessment of his own failures and lingering hopes. Those hopes come to the fore on “New Scratches,” a boast that he’s sticking out a new relationship despite all the cuts and bruises.— Geoffrey Himes