Introducing new music from Stephen Simmons as he releases his Family Album on his indie Locke Creek label. These are uncertain times but perhaps one saving grace during the pandemic is that people are slowing down and reconnecting with family. The songs on Family Album are exactly that, a connection to family. The songs were written by Stephen over fifteen years, each song highlighting a family member whose story served as mentor to Stephen. As the family was settling the estate of his grandmother, the home provided the perfect space to record the album. The home remained as it had all those years as the family grew. The memories like ghosts remained in the fabric of the quilts and photographs on the wall. The album was recorded during a two-week period in this home his grandfather built, the family home. It took a tremendous amount of love to write these songs. It’s a beautiful Family Album
Stephen’s story could be oversimplified as the typical small town boy makes it in the big city, but you would be missing the best parts. Stephen grew up in Woodbury Tennessee to a family of preachers, pickers, and storytellers. He moved to Nashville, toured the world, played over a thousand shows, released a string of records that included label-backed albums, independent projects, live performances, stripped-down recordings, and full-band releases. Stephen Simmons is a respected songwriter within the Americana, Roots, Folk and Country genres. His is a home-built career. His fans are fiercely loyal for the better part of two decades. Stephen Simmons is a storyteller, and his stories fit well in any genre.
When Stephen Simmons left for Nashville, he didn’t leave his family, he carried those stories with him. Family Album is proof. The album opens with, “When It Rains”. Fittingly because that’s where his story begins. His great-grandpa, convicted of murder in the first degree, is a story that rocked the small community. But, that’s not the story of the Simmons family. Perhaps losing great grandpa to a crime he didn’t commit, and then being found not guilty, washing away the guilt and shame, the family was given a gift. The gift of recognizing the things that truly matter in life. The gift of Family. A gift that too often comes at great loss. This Family Album shares that loss and pain, but also the joys.
The story of small town America grappling with issues of race, and love, and humanity. “Colors Fade” is as true today as when the family matriarch gathered the family as one in quilt. Perhaps it’s time to let that past fade.
“And the quilt stitched from patches
Grandma’s weathered hands on the bed
Different are our voices
Were all bound by common thread
It’s true these colors don’t run
But they fade”
Families present their best selves, especially preserving an idyllic setting for children. The songs, “Hucks Blues” and “Melancholy Days” suggest perhaps that a young child might have been better served with the knowledge of not being so different from the rest after all. What becomes of a small town boy, Stephen’s father, who turns 18 during the draft is chronicled in “Cannon County, 1966”. Perhaps if things went as planned we wouldn’t have this album.
There are growing up songs, songs like “At Granny’s” that recount happy memories. Or of cousins as close as brothers as in “Eddie From Woodbury” with their secrets held, and identities preserved. “Traveling Strange” recalls things you remember as a kid not quite adding up. These are stories all families have. Perhaps the details are different, but they pose the same questions and teach the same lessons.
As any Family Album requires, there are songs or passages delivered by the family matriarchs and patriarchs. Annie Simmons sings the sweet song, “I’m Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail”, a song by Karl Davis and accompanied by Stephen on guitar and harmony vocals. Allen Bryson sings, “Beautiful” and Mallie Lynette (Judy) Bryson recites “The Cross”. “Faith” and “Found” completes the family circle.
A boy losing his grandfathers, with those memories remaining as if it were yesterday. The ghosts of family certainly haunt these songs. “The Brown Suit”, perhaps giving rise to the songwriter, and remembering unconditional love as another grandfather passed in the song, “Facing East”.
“Fifty Bucks” recounts the mentor uncle who gave him everything Stephen needed to know about show business, and the realization that all too often we hear what we want to hear. It’s interesting how the advice is the same but takes on new meaning years later.
Produced by Eric Fritsch and Stephen Simmons
Recorded at 103 Bryson Street, Woodbury, Tennessee. August, 2018
Mixed by Eric Fritsch at Eastwood Studios
Mastered by Alex McCollough at True East Mastering
Album design by Adam Pinney
Additional photography by Amanda Risinger
Stephen Simmons: vocals, guitar, harmonica
Wade Simmons: harmony vocals
Glen Simmons: harmony vocals
Seth Simmons: saxophone
Eric Fritsch: keys, b3, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, percussion, dilruba, horns
Martin Lynds: drums, percussion
Molly Jewell: piano, harmony vocals
Matt Roley: harmony vocals
Larissa Maestro: cello
Mike Daly: pedal steel guitar
Snippets of homemade family recordings — his grandfather belting out a gospel hymn, his grandmother singing a verse, his uncle playing acoustic guitar — are sprinkled throughout the tracklist. The result is a roots album that explores Simmons’ own roots, recorded with members of his honorary musical family (including his longtime collaborator and co-producer, Eric Fritsch, as well as pianist Molly Jewell and pedal steel legend Mike Daly) and layered with splashes of acoustic guitars, cello, light percussion, vocal harmonies, and the occasional blast of brass. Family Album comes complete with a sixteen page book of family photos and lyrics. This is an audio portrait of family and yes, while it’s specific to the Simmons family, ultimately these stories are ours as well.
- Viola Krouse