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.""
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