Let me introduce you to Stephen Simmons, my good friends. Some of you, hell – I hope MANY of you, already know him from his previous album “The Big Show”.
If you don’t this is a good opportunity to get onboard and enjoy his songwriting.
Simmons have rounded up a few of Nashvilles Best Men, many of them have collaborated with him on previous albums, to make an album to resemble the country music he grew up with in the 70’s. With great storytelling, inspired by his boyhood heroes Don Williams, Charlie Rich and Waylon Jennings.
This albums is recorded by a bunch of friends sitting around drinking whiskey, listening to old country albums. Stephen tells it like this;
“This album really started with me and my friends getting together late at night, trying to recreate that ‘70s country feel of a classic Don Williams album,” he says. “I’d bring a bottle of Irish Whiskey, we’d listen to some records, then I’d pull out a song I’d written that fit that era. We’d all play it live, two or three times, and that was it. It really started out just for fun.”
The project was put on hold while he recorded and toured behind “The Big Show”, but as soon as he was home in Nashville, those whiskeyfilled nights commenced. When everyone was in town, they got back to recording – and it soon turned out to be an album in those songs.
“Hearsay” is engineered by Eric Fritsch, who also plays guitar and some bass on the album. Alex McCullough have mastered it, and plays masterful pedal steel. A pedal steel that’s so important to get that feeling of the old 70’s albums just right.
Both gentlemen have a good number of huge names on their cv’s – Fritsch as engineer for people like Willie Nelson and Port Wagoner. McCullough mastering albums for Todd Snider, Steve Earle, John Prine, Jeffery Foucault and Rod Picott. But they prove on this album that they’re also great musicians, and as mentioned; to me – the pedal steel really stands out.
As does Jen Gundermans B3 and electric piano. And voice. Most people know her from her time in The Jayhawks, but she also played in country-rock band Last Train Home, with the drummer on this album; Martin Lynds. Gundermans contribution is probably the most vital on the album, giving it an edge and a unique touch to set it apart.
To round up the players; Tim Marks plays bass. He’s a much used sessionman in Nashville with anyone from Terri Clark and Taylor Swift, to Will Kimbrough and Delbert McClinton on his resume. Dave Coleman plays guitar. Brilliantly, I might add, like he does in his band The Coal Men.
And then we’re at the heart of this project. Stephen Simmons’ songwriting. He is, quite simply, a master storyteller. The way he paints his pictures in your mind is done with crispy strokes on a huge canvas, and the characters pop out of his stories and maks you want to hang out with them when the song’s finished.
“I’ll Be Your Johnny Cash” is a good example, as are “Boobie Bungalow Gentlemans Club” and the utterly brilliant “Horse Cave, KY”. He builds his characters, mostly while telling his stories from a first-person perspective – and it makes us feel like we’re a part of the story.
“Boobie Bungalow Gentlemens Club” is a delightful story of a stripclub at a truckstop in Alabama. The version on the album is a slow and carefully layered song – where Jen Gundermans magical piano is the key. Personally I still prefer the live-version he played at a house concert I hosted last year, where my old friend and bandmate Jo Inge stepped in on guitar without ever hearing the song before. Those guitarlicks get me every time.
Check out the video of it below , where Stephen also tells the story of the Boobie Bungalow Gentlemens Club:
Down to the Booble Bungalow Gentelmen’s Club
Where I fell in love
There’s truck stop romancing, exotic couch dancing
While you fill your Semi up
No hometown to judge you
No rejection from lost love
Down at the Boobie Bungalow Club
Another great example of Simmons storytelling is “Horse Cave, KY”. Where Willie meets Betty at an adult book store, and how a Saturday in Kentucky can seem like a whole life.
Willie met Betty at the adult bookstore
Just off I-65
And they got themselves an ice-cream cone
At The Dinosaur World that night
Naturally there’s room for songs about love. Mostly failed love, but that still counts!
One of the best ones of that lot is “Stardust”, which ponders the fact that women tend to hunt down the assholes to share their life with – while us good guys stand around wondering what happened…
Honey I know you wanted me to be a jerk
I know you wanted me to be an ass
Honey I guess I lost my nerve
To be cruel to you was just too much to ask
And when we’re on the subject of good songs with some kind of love as a theme; “Santa Cruz Ridge” is a gem of a lyric – where Simmons really shows off his craft. Lines like “Meet a stranger but you feel like you know her // A glance, a hello, and a touch on the arm // And you’re strapped in on a super rollercoaster” brings back memories for most of us who’s ever had feelings for another person – and the line “But I swear by God you can only try // As hard as the other person will” sums up how miserable it might turn out…
Highway 1 by the coast of the ocean
We drove with the windows down
The radio was broken
And the wind was the only sound
You wanted me to show emotion
To say what I was feeling outloud
But I don’t know where I got the notion
I’d done enough to show you by now
He continues exploring difficult relationships in “Hard It Goes”, where the line “Love comes easy but hard it goes” really sums it up. Jen Gundermans backup vocals is nothing short of beautiful. Her piano is just as decisive as it must be, and the pedal steel just kicks ass!
I think my favourite part of “Hearsay” is the ending. The last song “Just Like A Sad Song” ends the album like this. With perfection…
So babe I’m at the end of this album
The needles just about to run out
Side One, Side two it’s all through
Have you figured what it was all about?
I’m calling this Essential Listening. And you know we just don’t throw those around here at Ninebullets.