Powerhouse Nashville guitarist JD Simo may never forget a night when he played at the Saxon Pub in Austin, Texas, about 13 years ago. He remembers the evening, though, not for his band’s performance but rather for the prowess of the headliner, Stephen Bruton.
“We actually opened the show, and I was playing very mediocre music but thought a lot of myself,” recalls Simo, whose band Simo released its new album, Rise & Shine, last month. “Stephen absolutely changed my life that night. His songs were the best I'd ever heard, and his playing was so rich with depth. It was like a sledgehammer hit me across the face! He showed me that night what an artist is. I knew how far I was from anything remotely close, and, in some ways, I've been pushing myself ever since to try to get in the ballpark. I really wish I'd gotten a chance to do something with him before he passed. He's a huge hero to me.”
Bruton died from throat cancer eight years ago at T-Bone Burnett’s Los Angeles home, and, although he worked with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and so many other top musicians, never truly got the recognition he deserved. That’s a fate JD Simo is working hard to avoid.
His band’s new album is fueled by JD deciding to step out from behind his guitar, focusing more on songwriting and sharing more of himself, he tells me. The album ventures away from the group’s psychedelic blues-rock core and incorporates more rhythm and blues. Some hip-hop and modern soul music is also sprinkled in, as well as garage and psychedelic rock. Call it “psych soul,” JD says.
“I became really bored with what I'd been doing,” he explains. “It was easy for me to assimilate other artists’ things, and I eventually had to find out what I actually had to say artistically. Once I made that switch in my mind, I couldn't turn around. It was cathartic and very difficult at times. It's easier to hide behind influences and what already exists. It takes a lot of courage to truly try and go the other way and just let it develop into what it's supposed to be. All the people I admire do this. It's the common denominator — whether its Neil Young, Bob Dylan, D'Angelo, Ryan Adams, or the Alabama Shakes. I'm so proud how the record turned out. It's finally me — not me- doing-something. The same goes for my bandmates.”
The band Simo also includes Adam Abrashoff on drums and Elad Shapiro on bass.
“We arranged the record together over a long period of time,” Simo says. “The songs, no matter how they were written, were hashed out together until we deemed them finished. I played guitar, keyboards, and sang. The production duties fell on all of us.”
Simo says his revelations on the album are ugly and make him uncomfortable.
“I talk about a lot of personal problems. I have deep depressions and struggle with a lot of anxieties. I'm finally getting help with them, and I write about them in a lot of the songs. Feelings of hopelessness, feelings of wanting to fix what's wrong, feelings of regret for things I can't change. It's all in there.”
Simo has played on a lot of artists’ albums, but he cites his work with Jack White as his proudest studio collaboration.
“I was proud to work with Jack White on some stuff for Beyonce's Lemonade record,” he says. “It was just one session at his house, but it was a very cool day. I was so down to finally do something with him. It was ridiculous! He's a bad dude!”
Some people regard Simo as a virtuoso on guitar, so I ask him who his guitar heroes are.
“Hendrix is the pinnacle — playing, writing, producing. He did it all. Mike Bloomfield is probably my big guy, though. He was a consummate journeyman musician — from ragtime and country blues to far-out Eastern-influenced jams and all the beautiful stuff he did with Bob Dylan.”
But what about the virtuoso label? Is that a proper description of Simo’s fingers on the axe?
“Not really,” he responds. “I just play. If anyone has something nice to say about me, I very much appreciate it, though. I'm much more interested in singers and writers these days.”
Simo grew up in Chicago, where he listened to his sister’s blues records, and says he began playing guitar at age 4.
“I wanted to be like Steve Cropper from the Blues Brothers movie. I started performing around age 6 or 7 — mostly Elvis and early rock and roll stuff. By 9, I was playing in bars. When I was 15, I started touring full-time — as a soloist and in pickup bands. At 20, I moved to Nashville and, after a very long, hard battle, eventually found my way into session work. After doing that for a few years, our group formed, and here I sit today.”
Simo’s previous album, Let Love Show the Way, was a bow to the group’s classic rock influence. It was recorded in Macon, Georgia, at the Big House, now a museum where the Allman Brothers Band once lived. Simo used Duane Allman’s 1957 gold-top Les Paul for every song on the record. The six-string guitar was the one Duane played on the first two Allman Brothers records and on the classic Derek & the Dominoes hit “Layla.”
Many Allman Brothers concerts through the decades are renowned for being some of the best in rock and roll history, but it’s an English singer-songwriter who put on the best live show Simo ever attended. It was a performance by Nick Lowe, opening for Wilco, at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium on Oct. 2, 2011.
“With a lone acoustic guitar, he held everyone's attention for a solid hour, and I swear he had everyone in the palm of his hand the whole time,” Simo says. “I’d never experienced that. I couldn't believe his command. Even the ushers and the folks working in the lobby were focused on him the whole time. I'll never forget it!”