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, Drink Ring Jesus, 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. My songs are an attempt to get all those contradictions out.”
Like Stephen’s previous record, 'Last Call', which was compared to everyone from Johnny Cash to Ryan Adams, 'Drink Ring Jesus' provides a front porch view of life in rural Tennessee, albeit one with a sometimes sinister perspective. This time, though, Simmons dispenses with the rhythm section and electric guitars, making his last-song-of-the-night vocals and hardtack acoustic accompaniment seem all the more ominous and immediate. On songs like “Time To Pay,’ Simmons explores the tension between faith and cutting and running. “Comes a time to be brave,” he sings, “Your soul is mine/ Now it’s time to pay.” If anything, 'Drink Ring Jesus' focuses more on religious faith, or its lack, than did its predecessor, though Simmons understands that spirituality is guesswork at best. “Well I’m out here, out here on the road/ Seem to wonder who’s watching over my soul.... Lord, I wonder where this road really goes/ Man, I wonder who knows,” he sings on "Carpenter Skills".
Redemption, spiritual or otherwise, is a recurring theme on 'Drink Ring Jesus'. “Next Stop, Redemption” finds Simmons on a “train trying to find its way home/ Picking up people like a lost and found,” he sings, “Hittin’ every depot that’s long been abandoned/ Man, this train is going where we need to go. Likewise, on “Cryin’ Elvis,” a worn-out portrait of The King looks down on an anonymous stage like Jesus, but unlike The King of Kings, Elvis won’t be coming back to deliver the singer from a roadhouse life where “these old ears have heard too many shows.”
'Drink Ring Jesus', which was recorded in Nashville by producer/engineer Eric Fritsch (Scott Miller, RB Morris, Carter Little, Rowland Stebbins), is the follow-up to Simmons full-band debut, 'Last Call', which was praised critics worldwide. Among it’s remarkable notices, renown country music authority Robert K. Oermann called the record “ragged-but-right” and “utterly compelling,” and Nashville Scene music editor Bill Friskics-Warren repeatedly placed the record alongside the work of Steve Earle and “any aggregation of three-named Texas troubadours you’d care to recall.” In a coup for Stephen’s do-it-yourself marketing scheme, The November 2004 edition of Mojo Magazine listed him, along with the likes of Bobby Bare, Jr. and Josh Ritter, as “One Of Five Young Bucks Taking a Lead From Johnny Cash.
“At times I feel like I’m being deadly serious, but at the same time being tongue in cheek,” says Stephen, who, last year, was a finalist in Merlefest’s prestigious songwriting competition. He admits that, like 'Last Call', 'Drink Ring Jesus' is mostly about “lying, cheating and drinking.” That said, his vision of Middle Tennessee’s underbelly is not nearly as dark as it might seem. “These are not so much records about saints, as they are about sinners,” he says. “But I truly believe that there’s salvation out there for everyone. In that sense, I guess they’re songs about all of us."
'Drink Ring Jesus' was released in March 2006 and later released on 'Rounder Europe Records' in August 2006.
05.30.06 American Songwriter Magazine
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
03.11.06 The Nashville Scene
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
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
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
12.01.06 UNCUT 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
12.01.06 Miles of Music
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
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.
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
10.01.06 NetRhythms (UK)
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
06.19.06 Go 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
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