Stephen Simmons was raised in the small town of Woodbury, Tennessee. 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. As a songwriter, however, his vision is much more complex. The songs on his new recording, 'Last Call', tell stories of country life's dark side and serve to remind listeners how it feels to stand at the intersection of piety and sin.
"When you're raised in the Church of Christ, if you're sensitive at all, it leaves you with a lot to struggle with," says Stephen, who now lives in Nashville. "You grow up to see that there are gaps and holes in what you've been taught; there are questions where there are not supposed to be questions. On the one hand, I was exposed to small community religious life, but on the other, I was exposed to my wild-ass relatives. This record is an attempt to get all those contradictions out."
It would be a mistake to categorize 'Last Call' as strictly Alt.Country or Americana. Though it has a lot in common with those genres, the record has a wide variety of influences, from the Small Faces to Gordon Lightfoot. At its essence, 'Last Call' represents both sides of a struggle--the tension between last call for alcohol and last call for your soul. Take, for example, the words of the conflicted drunk in the album's title track: "Last call for all you sinners/ I thought I heard the bartender say/ And I took it kinda' hard/ Though I'm sure he didn't mean it that way." And there's the desperate lawman of "Bow Down," whose life on-the-take has deadly consequences: "I took the money that I made from the farm/ Got a little place and a brand new job/ With a county patrol car/ But word sure does get out fast when someone can be had/ And say what you wanna' say but there's a price for every man . . ..Pray Jesus ain't around, man/ To see me bow down"
Stephen understands the conflict between rural simplicity and the opportunities and temptations represented by the city; this tension runs throughout 'Last Call's sixteen tracks. Songs such as "County Lines," a straight-up country rocker, describe the gravitational pull of rural areas such as Cannon County, TN, where Stephen was born and raised: "County Lines/ Run in funny ways/ But once they draw 'em up/ They don't ever change/ They say you can't go back/ So don't even try/ Take one more step/ And kiss your County goodbye.
'Last Call', which was recorded in Nashville by producer/engineer Eric Fritsch (Scott Miller, Carter Little, Rowland Stebbins), is the follow-up to Simmons' self-released acoustic debut, 'Stephen Simmons Live: Five Song Sampler' (re-released as 'The Superstore' in 2007), which was much praised by Nashville's music critics. The Nashville Scene's Bill Friskics-Warren, for example, says Simmons is "a singer-songwriter of marked depth and commitment, (he) recalls a more subdued Steve Earle, a more grounded Ryan Adams and any aggregation of three-named Texas troubadours you'd care to recall." 'Last Call' features performances by some of Nashville's most in-demand players, including guitarist Kenny Vaughn, bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Paul Griffith and cellist David Henry.
"At times I feel like I'm being deadly serious, but at the same time being tongue in cheek," says Stephen, who admits that 'Last Call' is mostly about "lying, cheating and drinking." That said, his vision of life in Tennessee's less populated regions is not nearly as dark as it might seem. "This is not so much a record about saints, as it is one about sinners," he says. "But I truly believe that there's salvation out there for everyone. In that sense, I guess it's really a record about all of us."
'Last Call' was released on 'Locke Creek Records' in June 2004 and later released on 'Rounder Europe Records' in April 2007.
03.01.05 The Nashville Scene
The friction between Simmons' humming intellect and the bedrock lessons about sin and salvation that linger from his Church of Christ upbringing in Woodbury, Tenn., throws off sparks on his full-length debut, Last Call. His forebears are unmistakable: Steve Earle, Chris Knight, Kris Kristofferson and any other country singer-songwriter who ever brought a jacked-up I.Q. to bear on the contradictions of spirituality. Simmons' natural grit and deliberation, as well as the searching sprawl of his 71-minute album, suggest he won't let go of his questions until the answers show themselves.
– Chris Neal
10.06.04 The Nashville Scene - Best of Nashville 2004
Best Undiscovered Singer-Songwriter: Stephen Simmons
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 will draw comparisons to Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen and Chris Knight and other master storytellers. If he keeps making albums as good as his recent Last Call, someday he'll be mentioned alongside them.
– Michael McCall
08.04.04 The Nashville Scene
New album by local singer-songwriter plumbs lives of hard-pressed rural folk trying to get higher Stephen Simmons titled his new album Last Call (Locke Creek Records) because many of his characters have heard those words in two places: at closing time in nightclubs, when, as in the title track, a bartender calls out "last call for all you sinners"; and at the end of church, when the preacher makes the same plea. What Simmons does so well — with songs like "Baptism," "Sweet Salvation," "Dirty Side of Me" and "Forgive Me Father" — is portray individuals in search of transcendence but caught in internal conflict. He's also good at depicting how one bad choice, or a series of them, can bring down all the good that came before it.
A native of Woodbury, Tenn., Simmons was raised in a Church of Christ family of factory workers and farmers, and he draws on that background to examine the moral conflicts of impoverished country folk torn between their religious upbringing and carnal impulses.
Last Call balances gentle acoustic arrangments with rough-edged, guitar-driven roots rockers. Produced by Eric Fritsch, these songs are built around the sensitive rhythm section of bassist Dave Jacques and drummer (and Scene contributor) Paul Griffith, augmented by esteemed accompanists like steel player Paul Niehaus, guitarists Kenny Vaughn and Mike McAdam, and harmony singer Wendy Newcomer.
These outstanding musicians prove their worth by how unobtrusively they add to Simmons' songs. Nevertheless, it's the stories that stick, such as the bored young pranksters who bedevil a farmer until violence changes all of their lives, and the state trooper who ignores some childhood friends who cook up crystal meth in an out-of-the-way trailer, only to find his teen son O.D.'d on their product.
At his best, Simmons is as good as heartland songwriters like Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Chris Knight and R.B. Morris, all of whom he calls to mind at times, even though his voice and lyrics have a potent punch distinctly his own.
– Michael McCall
11.01.04 MOJO Music Magazine
Five young bucks taking a lead from Johnny Cash.
1. Josh Ritter
2. Bobby Bare Jr.
4. Waylon Payne
5. Stephen Simmons
(East) Tennessee native raised in the Church of (God in) Christ amid an extended family of hellraisers, Simmons channels that mixed-up childhood into hard-hitting ballads that owe as much to Jay Farrar as they do The Man In Black. Drunk, sober, or somewhere in between, Simmon’s words ring true.
Check out: Last Call, Locke Creek Records, 2004
– Andrea Lisle
12.20.04 The Tennessean
Stephen Simmons takes spiritual journey on new album
England’s Mojo magazine recently mentioned Music City troubadour Stephen Simmons as someone whose music is following in the footsteps of dearly departed Johnny Cash. That doesn’t mean Simmons sounds a thing like Cash; he doesn’t. Then again, nobody sounds like Johnny Cash, except folks who are trying to imitate him. And Simmons isn’t out to imitate.
Like Cash, though, his songs are often studies of sin and varying levels of redemption. Simmons was raised amid spiritual certainties in the Church of Christ, but Last Call is more about questions than answers. It’s a tense set of songs – Simmons publishes his work through the aptly titled Downguy Music – with the singer proclaiming, "There’s a dirty side of me that you ain’t ever seen," and "Pray Jesus ain’t around, man, to see me bow down." There’s an album-ending proclamation of "sweet salvation," but the ride there passes through some harrowing territories.
Simmons’ voice is an edgy instrument that sounds wise and lived-in, belying the "young buck" tag given him by Mojo. At times on Last Call, that voice is augmented by sparse instrumentation that recalls Bruce Springsteen’s plaintive Nebraska album. In other places, producer Eric Fritsch opts for a roots-rock approach.
Nashville all-stars including guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bass man Dave Jacques and drummer Paul Griffith ensure that transitions are seamless. Influences including Springsteen and Steve Earle are apparent, but Last Call reveals Simmons as a thoughtful, perceptive, emotionally riveting new voice.
Unavailable at big-box retail outlets, the album may be purchased at Grimey’s, at Tower Records or on the Internet through stephensimmonsmusic.com
– Peter Cooper
03.20.05 The New Zealand Herald
Winning ways with country
STEPHEN SIMMONS - Last Call (Southbound)
(Herald rating * * * *)
Tennessee-born Nashville-based singer-songwriter Stephen Simmons doesn't lie. A lesser artist might have opened an album with something up-tempo but Simmons starts as he means to go on with the downbeat The Good Life, I've Got Issues Baby I'll Probably Never Resolve.
His debut album Last Call announces the arrival of a major talent who views life from the perspective of the sinners, not the saved, from those who have driven the back roads, spent time inside, or live with guilt. These finely detailed stories invite comparisons with Steve Earle and acoustic Bruce Springsteen, sung in a hard-edged sometimes slurry style which suggests indifference or not givin' a damn.
Terrific songs here: the wild-child narrative of Loserville; the sense of shame and avoidance of the past in Shirley's Stables; the unspoken menace of Dirty Side Of Me. All this in spare arrangements, a few augmented by pedal steel, and every now and again some kicking drums. Good one all round. Songs from hard-scrabble roads, bar stools and prison cells, ringing with sin and guilt and feeling utterly authentic.
– Graham Reid
10.14.04 Nashville City Paper
Local talent a real standout
In a city loaded with excellent singer/songwriters Stephen Simmons' new self-released CD Last Call deserves special praise and attention for its mix of thoughtful lyrics and expressive, urgent lead vocals. While others focus on the upcoming election and political fare, Simmons explores more universal subjects without turning any song into a bitter diatribe or overly sentimental lament.
On the story songs sometimes it is hard to separate things that actually happened to me from the narrative that is fiction," Simmons said. "Sometimes I'm inspired by things that I experienced. Other times there will be something that just triggers the creative spark and I can create something completely separate from my own life. But I am always exploring things that I think everyone in the audience on some level has experienced or thought about."
Simmons, whose trio performs tonight at the Family Wash and Friday night at the Exit/In as part of the RASAC benefit, recorded Last Call locally in collaboration with producer/engineer Eric Fritsch. Such highly regarded Nashville musicians as guitarist Kenny Vaughn, bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Paul Griffith and cellist David Henry joined Simmons on the disc, which includes such poignant tunes as the autobiographical "Country Lines" illuminating Simmons' background in Cannon County and the more somber "Bow Down" that outlines the dilemma of a cop who succumbs to temptation. Simmons avoids sounding anguished or overwrought in any situation, even when delivering lyrics that in lesser hands might sound clichéd or pious. His arrangements utilize elements of country, rock and pop, with everything linked through his strong, engaging vocals.
Fueled by a love for performing and a belief in his own skills, Simmons hasn't sat back in wait of the industry to discover his skills. "I'm trying to play as much as I can," Simmons said. "I'm certainly open to some sort of distribution deal, but I also knew it didn't make sense to sit around hoping someone would find or hear me. I'm confident enough in my music and myself to feel that there's an audience out there for my songs, and I've already got enough music for three more records."
– Ron Wynn
01.05.05 Mountain Xpress Music
Ultimately, it's the conflicted singer/songwriter who resides at the heart of that whole alt-country thing. Young Stephen Simmons, a Cannon County, Tenn. native who has since made his way to the bloated, hard-to-get-noticed-at-all Nashville scene, understands this dichotomy as well as anyone. And he makes excellent use of those conflicts in his own heartfelt approach to the genre. Once in Music City (a town where most new arrivals need three-to-five years just to get their foot in the door), Simmons caught some keen ears with his self-released EP, and he now has their full attention with his first full-length record, Last Call. The brooding release explores the dark-sided moral dilemmas of rural life - namely church life - and his refined-grit approach has garnered comparisons to "a more subdued Steve Earle" and a "more grounded Ryan Adams."
07.01.07 NetRhythms (UK)
Stephen Simmons - Last Call (Me And My Americana)
This month sees the overdue release in this country of Stephen's singularly impressive and widely acclaimed debut full-length CD, which originally came out in the US two years ago (shortly after his self-released live EP). Coming to it fresh from the perspective of last year's almost brutally sparse Drink Ring Jesus, it's an altogether different animal in at least the one respect: over the course of its 71 minutes, it covers a wide variety of musical canvases from full band arrangement to stripped-down acoustic.
Although thematically it deals with much the same concerns (loss, love, life), Last Call is shot through with originality of thought and perception, while its emotional landscape, though familiar, ain't exactly predictable. Its potent stories are concerned with the various ways the album title can be interpreted: the "last call" from the bar, the "last call" for your soul, and the "last call" of small town living when experiencing city life. Each track is an epic of situational observation, subdued and melancholy but upliftingly so, from within which we experience the soul's reflections on the human condition, often as if viewed from the bottom of a glass.
Love and life, religion and redemption (Forgive Me Father for what I done here today), tales from the dark night of the soul yet curiously soothing, for life ain't easy for anyone in Loserville - whether it's the unfortunate Shut-Up Samantha, the uncomfortably familiar protagonist in the sinister Dirty Side Of Me, or the guy's painful regret that twists the knife for that eternal dilemma of Betty I'm Married. Then, Lay On The Tracks plumbs the depths of despair and desolation but the sweetness of the melody and the arrangement signify a peculiarly calm resignation; and another standout, the beautiful Just Like Love, is at one and the same time direct and enigmatic.
Stephen's brilliant, sometimes deceptively dark little vignettes are couched in comfortingly familiar musical colours with prominent elements such as lonesome harmonica, fiddles, gentle twang, occasional pedal steel and dobro, soft brushed drums (tho' there's still a few surprises, such as the almost grungy energy of the title track). These features aside, it's real hard to categorise Stephen's music - tho' I wouldn't be exaggerating to say there's the feel of a Tennessee version of Steve Earle on County Lines, and quite a few tracks kinda recall a backwoods version of Springsteen.
Stephen's also real fortunate to be supported on this disc by a whole gang of Nashville notables: Kenny Vaughn (guitar), Dave Jacques (bass), Paul Griffith (drums), David Henry (cello), Wendy Newcomer (backing vocals), Casey Driessen & Ward Stout (fiddles), with Paul Niehaus and producer Eric Fritsch. Now I've spent entire days playing this CD over and over again, and I still don't feel I've got its full measure, there's so much on offer, so many depths and subtleties. It may be an overwhelming sprawl of an album, with so many ideas running through its 16 tracks in a heady (if at times understated) parade of imagery and sounds that provide a challenge to the senses and emotions.
Last Call is a magnificent record genuinely without a weak moment, that fully justifies the acclaim heaped on Stephen as one of the outstanding new talents within what's loosely classed contemporary roots Americana.
– David Kidman
12.01.04 Nashville Lifestyles
Generation Next: Music City earns its name with up-and-coming acts in every genre
Middle Tennessee native Stephen Simmons draws his dark Americana imagery directly from his rural upbringing. Like a twisted country preacher, his songs of sin and salvation are the aural equivalent of paintings by primitive Southern artists like Howard Finster and James Harold Jennings. In 2004, Simmons released his debut Last Call without record label support and was named "Best Undiscovered Singer/Songwriter" by the Nashville Scene.
– Paul V. Griffith
07.05.05 Music Row Magazine
STEPHEN SIMMONS | Last Call
One of the things that keeps drawing me back to the Americana genre is the awesome number of songwriters that it embraces.
Any movement that includes Jeff Black, Rodney Crowell, Stacy Earle, Stephen Simmons, Eric Heatherly and Adrienne Young is OK in my book. These people make records that are so superior to those of the country stars they share this city with. Records that say something. Records with refreshing sounds.
Yes, I find it frustrating that Americana programming focuses on a full album, rather than on an individual tune (which drives virtually every other genre). But when you've got people this gifted, what else can you do? Besides, there's something charmingly retro about that.
I'm a little late in coming to this party, but allow me to add my voice to the chorus of critical praise that this Nashville writer-artist has been getting. He's got a dark, drawling way with words and a ragged-but-right, roots-rock sound that are both utterly compelling on this title tune. Some of the other tracks are acoustic-guitar folk on this generous, 16-track showcase of this extraordinary troubadour. The overriding themes are sin and redemption, and that's about as elemental as it gets.
– Robert K. Oermann
Stephen Simmons, Last Call (Locke Creek Records)
Stephen Simmons stares from the back of his album Last Call with a sternness that pierces any notion of rollicking light-heartedness conjured in its name. On this label debut filled with twangy grit and soothing vulnerability, the Nashville-based artist employs a kind of Southern Gothic storytelling that casts a haunting shadow on the human condition and lends a voice to the guilty conscience.
His is a sound wrapped in the crumpled, faded denim of American roots music, comforting and sturdy, but unforgiving in the tight spots.
The album’s title owes as much to the sobering pages of Revelations as it does the headiness of the strong final drink; and Simmons proposes that in the end, the experiences might not be so dissimilar, a tenuous separation like that of faithfulness and infidelity, love and lust and the decision at the fork of good and evil. In toeing that line, Simmons carves a unique place for himself. At certain times, the subtlety of the lyrics and his careful twists hang like a scathing whisper from the reconciled soul, but in the next breath, there’s a clap on the back from the guy who’s "thirsty for sin, and yearning for knowledge," as he sings in the bawdy and bluesy title track.This meaty, 16-song release adds amplified punch to two songs, "Loserville" and "Sweet Salvation," that appeared on the stark 2001 acoustic collection, Live – five song sampler.
A lot has changed in the three years since a boyish, clean-cut Simmons was performing on the side while balancing the 9-to-5 work world.
What has remained is his ability to capture in his music a blue collar America of little privilege and few easy breaks, a nod to his musical inspirations that include Woody Guthrie, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. Like his characters searching for an identity after separating from established roots, Simmons flourishes by drawing from his rural upbringing and examining the transition into the unknown before emerging tattered but unbridled with his guitar and harmonica.
History constantly taps the shoulder, denying complete separation from the oft-ugly truth in "Loserville" and "Shirley’s Stables," and acts as a reminder of bitter realities that aren’t so disposable in "County Lines" and "Grey Skies." His thoughtful approach to storytelling and eagerness to study the less-than-desirable side of human nature results in several stellar relationship songs, not necessarily about love and not always sweet, but certainly honest.
From the confessional "Dirty Side of Me" to the morning-after guilt of "Forgive Me Father," Simmons presents unvarnished accountability for the thoughts and actions that mostly go unspoken, wrapped in soft percussion and the sweet backing vocals of Wendy Newcomer. And his characters are not immune to the pain that they have inflicted. The bottomed-out lamentations of failed love in "Lay On The Tracks" and "Just Like Love" are delivered with strength and resignation from a soul that just can’t remain unaffected even though, sung in another song, "you’ll get used to it baby, just like the rest of us do."
The album’s strength is in Simmons’ ability to weave stories with unexpected twists that reveal the truth about his characters in one short phrase. Some are delivered, some are damned, but there’s no heavy-handed judgment on any of them. They’re just a collection of regular folks in the common struggle, and Simmons stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them all, exposing the cosmic truths that he digs up in his own backyard.