Years before releasing his first album of American roots music, Stephen Simmons grew up in small-town Tennessee, raised by a family of guitar pickers, preachers, and storytellers. He eventually left that town — and those relatives — and headed to Nashville, where he launched an acclaimed career whose highlights have included 11 studio albums, more than 1,000 shows, and tours across a dozen countries. Even so, he’s never forgotten about his rural roots. Albums like Last Call and Hearsay have nodded to the classic country music and family values that once filled his childhood home, but it’s Simmons’ newest release, Family Album, that serves as his clearest tribute to the place (and people) that shaped him.
Recorded in the bedrooms and hallways of his grandmother’s empty house in Woodbury, TN, Family Album unfolds like an audio version of a family photo album, with each song focusing upon a specific relative, a certain piece of family lore, or an experience from Simmons’ childhood. “When It Rains” unpacks the story of his great-grandfather’s murder conviction during the 1930s. “Huck’s Blues” tells the story of Simmons’ grandfather, who raised six children while working as a bartender in a Tennessee saloon. “Colors Fade” grapples with issues like race and religion in a small southern town, “Cannon County, 1966” recounts the day his father was drafted into the Vietnam War, and “At Granny’s” whisks the listener back to Simmons’ childhood, when he would watch his older relatives play songs by Bob Seger and the Little River Band.
Snippets of homemade family recordings — his grandfather belting out a gospel hymn, his grandmother singing a verse from Karl Davis’ “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” 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.
A journeyman musician, Simmons wrote Family Album’s songs over a 15-year period, setting aside each family-oriented song as it appeared. He toured heavily on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean during the same period, releasing a string of records that included label-backed albums, independent projects, live performances, stripped-down recordings, and full-band releases. His music was similarly diverse, running the gamut from acoustic folk music to amplified, Neil Young-worthy roots rock. Show by show, song by song, and album by album, Simmons hand-built his own audience — an audience that has remained fiercely supportive for the better part of two decades, crowd-funding nearly half of his studio albums along the way.
With 2020’s Family Album, Stephen Simmons comes full circle. A longtime fixture of Nashville’s Americana community, he salutes his small-town beginnings with these songs, whose biographical lyrics nod to the family that played a crucial role in his upbringing. If it takes a village to raise a child, then Family Album tells the story of that village: its members, its music, and the memories it leaves behind.