Off the Straight and Narrow 

Records from Stephen Simmons and Thad Cockrell both take artistic license with their spiritual backgrounds

For singer-songwriters like Stephen Simmons and Thad Cockrell, a Southern evangelical Christian upbringing doesn’t necessitate sticking to a straight and narrow musical path. Over the course of several recordings each, they’ve brought a little imagination to the traditions they’ve inherited.
By Jewly Hight By Jewly Hight

For singer-songwriters like Stephen Simmons and Thad Cockrell, a Southern evangelical Christian upbringing doesn’t necessitate sticking to a straight and narrow musical path. Over the course of several recordings each, they’ve brought a little imagination to the traditions they’ve inherited. This time Simmons’ guilt-laden souls aren’t wrestling with heaven and hell so much as romance, and Cockrell has released the spiritual uplift that’s been bubbling beneath the surface all along.

Not that the two sound alike or even espouse the same beliefs, but they both make country-influenced music and have church-going in their blood—Simmons grew up in the Church of Christ denomination, and Cockrell is the son of a Southern Baptist minister. And both just released new recordings that explore new spiritual directions.

God and the devil loom large on Simmons’ first two proper releases. A desperate dualism haunts Last Call, and most of the characters in the 16 songs poison their relationships with dirty hands and guilty consciences. Follow-up Drink Ring Jesus bores beneath the surface in duels between good and evil to compelling and insightful results—there’s even a song written from the devil’s perspective on reeling in a soul on “Devil’s Work Is Never Done.” On both albums, Simmons injects the urgency of the pulpit, mined from his experience growing up in Woodbury, Tenn., into storylines of down-and-out folks.

“Half of the service was [the preacher] sweating and spitting out fire and brimstone,” Simmons says. “It would get so hard that people [were] moved to get up and go down front, and that meant everybody was going to be late for lunch, because somebody hadn’t been true and they would tell what they’d done. Maybe there’s something cathartic about going [to the altar]. Maybe everybody else is like, ‘OK, I feel much better now. We got that out of the way—let’s go eat.’ ”

He got so used to that sort of fervency that he expected it most everywhere. “I remember moving and going to a really big church somewhere on West End and feeling kind of ripped off because nobody chewed me out,” he says.

Simmons’ latest, Something In Between, isn’t about spiritual wrestling so much as sorting through the rubble of relationships. It’s as if, for the moment, he’s purged the thoughts of hellfire from his system.

“You write a lot more songs about relationships—or most people do—than you do about demons and stuff like that,” he says. “For a long time, it was tied really closely to those themes. I don’t know if that’s just that phase I was going through. Anybody that absorbs all that stuff—I think you have to work it out somehow.”

But not surprisingly, Simmons’ relationship songs have a soul-searching element too. “I think sometimes it’s the same theme of guilt and learning how to forgive yourself when you haven’t lived up,” he says. Take “Go Easy On Me,” a straight-ahead heartland rock song that beseeches whomever might be listening to “Go easy ’cause I’m trying / Can’t make up for the last time / Couldn’t fix it if I tried.”

It may seem like Simmons has followed a direct route away from spiritual preoccupations, but the timeline’s not that simple. Never intending the demo-like Drink Ring Jesus to be a full-fledged album, Simmons ended up slipping it in between Last Call and the then-in-progress Something In Between. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just went even one more step off that cliff on the religion thing with [Drink Ring Jesus], so when I do get this [new] one out it’s going to really seem like I completely swung back around,” he says.

Even across different subject matter, Simmons’ songwriting has a ragged realism and human empathy from album to album. A lot of the scenes unfold in bars or bedrooms. His voice has a rubbed-raw quality and his melodies scrape the earth.

“Even on the stuff that deals with spirituality—I definitely feel more comfortable with the word ‘spirituality’ than ‘religion’—there’s not anything that’s even slightly judgmental, because that’s what I kind of cringe [at] about mainstream religion—the judgmental aspect—having felt guilty and been made to feel guilty for a long time,” Simmons says. “But I’m a part of that too—you have to want to be made to feel guilty.”

“Obviously [songs] still come out like that,” he says. “It’s not like you completely move away from it.”

Meanwhile, Cockrell began at a different place and headed in an opposite direction. He recorded only one song dealing with religious themes on his first three albums, but his new To Be Loved EP is all gospel, and he expects to expand it into a full-length soon. He’s found comfort in making his own way back to the musical tradition he grew up with. And since his strict upbringing didn’t allow for much secular music, that was mainly Southern gospel like the Blackwood Brothers and The Gaithers.

Cockrell’s first album, Stack of Dreams, features a simple recording of the gospel-themed original “He Set Me Free” only by accident. “I never intended to record that,” Cockrell says. “Channel 5 out of Raleigh wanted to come out and do an interview, so they asked if I’d play something. So I played that song and when I was done [producer] Chris [Stamey] was like, ‘We’ve got a take.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’d put a mic there, but he told me it was just for looks.”

The version of “He Set Me Free” on To Be Loved shows Cockrell’s new subtler sound: This time, the harmonies are nestled closely and carefully below his voice and there are fine layers of reverb, keyboards and ringing guitar. The rest of the songs are similarly expansive-sounding, with transcendent melodies that aren’t like any he’s recorded and fit his reedy, ceiling-less voice well. During the chorus of “Pride (Won’t Get Us Where We’re Going),” the melody rises and glides, and Cockrell’s easy singing opens up on the higher notes.

He attributes the vision for the album to a dream he had: “Both the Johnnys [Cash and Lennon] have met and they’re hanging out in heaven. We talk about a gospel record and that’s what To Be Loved is—if Johnny Cash and John Lennon were to make a gospel record together.”

Compared to Stack of Dreams (a lovesick, honky-tonk-steeped set), Warmth and Beauty (similar, but with a touch of rock and polish) and Begonias (a duet record with Caitlin Cary), here Cockrell is noticeably less tethered to country influences like Charlie Rich, Merle Haggard and Don Williams.

“I want to be careful and not discount what I’ve done,” he says. “I think that’s so much a part of the process. At the time, those were songs I needed to sing. I just think it takes time for you to be like, ‘OK, I don’t want to pay homage anymore.’ ”

Lyrically, Cockrell’s shifted from romantic heartbreak to a spiritual salve. “I just didn’t want to sing about my ex-girlfriend,” he says. “These are songs that I needed to hear. I wanted to write something for all of us. I wanted to write something about the human condition. There’s no grand answers given on this stuff, I don’t feel.”

Paired with the album’s fresh sounds are some of the traditional language, themes and images of gospel music. “Great Rejoicing” is a case in point, with its reassurance that suffering will turn to joy in the next life. “I think when you come to understand something, [there’s an] ease in which you can talk about it where it doesn’t really sound like you’re trying to read off flash cards,” Cockrell says. “It seeps in a lot deeper and it’s not like you’ve been trying—it’s just in there.”

Even when Cockrell wasn’t recording gospel songs, he was still writing them. He organized Altar Call—an occasional gospel night at The Basement with an array of Nashville performers—as an outlet.

“I just realized that I hadn’t been singing any of this. It’s so much a part of me. I’d been talking with [a major country label in town] and I realized, ‘I can’t sing that shit. Nobody’d believe me.’ ”

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