Five Questions with Chris Simmons

Born and raised in Alabama, guitarist Chris Simmons has seen his fair share of the world, but Huntsville (birthplace of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) is were he lays his hat.

Simmons’ sound is described as an “energetic rock ‘n’ roll and blues affair, seasoned with raw Southern soul,” a sound which can be found on four solo records — most recently The Blues Days of Christmas. He’ll play Emerald Lounge on Saturday, April 13. The Chuck Beattie Band and Big Gene & Danny Lee’s Loud Pack also perform. 9 p.m., $8.

Mountain Xpress: You’ve traveled to and lived in a number of places, but you returned to your roots in Alabama. How do you think Alabama has impacted your sound, and does a sense of place play a role in your songwriting?
Chris Simmons: I feel more like myself when I’m living in Alabama, if that makes sense. I chased some dreams to Austin and Los Angeles and I had fun and learned a lot, but North Alabama is my spot in the universe. One big reason I came back is because I wanted to start my family near my and my wife’s families, but home had been calling me back for a while.  It’s about family, the folks, the beauty, the weather. It’s just in the air. I love to travel and see new places and meet all different kinds of people, but my roots are definitely here.  I’m happiest when I set my anchor here and when I’m happy and relaxed, my creativity flows freely.

Can you tell us a story from your five years of touring with Leon Russell? Or perhaps a piece of advice he imparted?
Playing with Leon was definitely a surreal experience at first.  I had to up my game a good bit to fit in. He’s very knowledgeable, musically. Lotsa new chords for me! I learned so much from my time with Leon, it’s impossible to explain what you learn from playing with, writing with and just being around a Legend of his experience and wisdom. I was able to just watch him and pay attention and learn that way. I treasure being able to say I wrote a couple of songs with him, and [that] the conversations I was able to have about songwriting [were] with one of the most prolific songwriters of all time.

Rock, blues and soul are all important elements in your sound, but are there any other musical influences (or maybe not influences, but favorite genres/musicians/albums you listen to) that might surprise us?
I do love rock ‘n’ roll and blues and a lot of the classic soul music, but I also love classic country like Merle, Cash, Willie, Waylon, Conway, Hank, Hank Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I often listen to Southern gospel bluegrass on Sunday mornings. We have a very cool radio station right nearby that plays only classic country, except on Sunday mornings, they do a few hours of Southern gospel bluegrass.  I love the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal and Sabbath. I love the Bee Gees, too. I just love a great song, an understated heartfelt vocal, a sweet guitar tone, a powerful guitar tone, a scream that comes from the heart and gut at the same time, thick sweet harmonies like Freddie and the Gibbs did it, a loose raw harmony like Keith does it, a driving drum beat, a simple bass thump, or an intricate bass line like Paul does it.

Your videos and press photos suggest a level of showmanship. Do you have a stage persona? If so, tell us about that character. If not, tell us how you psyche yourself up to take the stage.
I am usually much more laid back off stage, up ‘til a few minutes before show time. I don’t listen to any certain music or slap myself in the face or anything like that. The audience and atmosphere usually get me sparked up. I do some light singing to warm up the voice a little. About five minutes before show time, I do a bit of stretching and loosening my arms and hands up by shaking them around. I shake my legs around a bit, something I call “shaking out the gooses”. Silly, I know. Kind of a cross between “shaking it off” and getting “loose as a goose,” to get the oxygen and blood flowing in a more relaxed fashion [and] to take it down a notch. I get happy and excited, so I have to relax a little. Once I’m out there, I’m right between the audience and the band and my guitar amps. That’s great place to be. When I’m there, I’m definitely not so laid back. Some nights it can be a truly magical experience

What projects do you currently have in the works, and what should we expect from you in the future?
I had been planning on doing another full-on rock ‘n roll and blues album, but I’ve kind of had a change of heart. I played 98-percent of all of the parts on my last three CDs and that was the general plan this time, but now I’m really wanting to do the next one with my full band. So, I’m going to have to put it off for a little while. It will take a bit more time to get ready for it, but it won’t take nearly as long to track it. I think I’m going to do an acoustic CD in the meantime. I have a handful of songs that I’ve written that don’t necessarily fit into the rock ‘n’ roll and blues theme, but I think they are good tunes. I’ve been co-writing and producing some things with some friends of mine. I’m always writing songs and looking to write songs with other folks, but the main thing I’m working on is getting Chris Simmons and Royal Blue into the eyes and ears of all the good people of world.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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