The Southern blues/rock guitarist Chris Simmons talks about Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Duane Allman, Texas bars & Freddie King

I think blues music in it’s evolution was like “the wheel”.

Chris Simmons: Hallelujah - Blues - Man!

Chris Simmons grew up in a little town in Alabama. He picked up the guitar at age 12 and before long, he knew that playing that guitar would always be his life. After joining his first band at age 15, he roamed the southeast playing southern rock and blues in dirty little bars and house parties and such... until moving on to log some miles with a nationally touring rock n roll group as a side man for awhile... He made Austin, TX, his next home.


He spent 5 years living and learning in the heart of Texas Blues playing legendary venues such as "The Steamboat", "Antone's" and the "Saxon Pub". Now, again he makes his home in the backwoods of Lacey's Spring, Alabama. With some mileage on his feet and hands, his heart has pointed him back to the blues the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Freddie King...where it all began for him. For the last couple of years Chris has been fortunate to play guitar for the legendary Leon Russell.  Between the days and nights on the road, in his little studio by the edge of those Alabama woods, Chris recorded his version of what he hears when he gets the blues. "Old News To Me"- IIt's a little bit rock n roll and little bit a gospel, and a whole lotta blues.


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in music, what are your first musical memories?
When I saw Van Halen on MTV, I really started feeling the need to get an electric guitar. I was about 11 years old. My mom got me an acoustic when  I was 12. At first I didn’t touch it because it was old and hard to play and it wasn’t an electric. Eventually I started learning on it and she finally got me an electric about a year later.  
When I was a very little child I used to pretend I was Elvis Presley. I got a lot of attention when I did that, so that probably gave me my first taste of ‘entertaining’.


Who were your first idols, what have been some of your musical influences?
As I mentioned, Elvis Presley was probably my first influence. I was a big fan of Michael Jackson and Prince before I got my first guitar. After that I got really heavy into AC/DC… then on to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Clapton, Duane Allman, Peter Green, Robert Johnson, Freddie, BB and Albert..not to mention Leon Russell.


What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first concert I saw was, Aerosmith and Joan Jett. Before the Joan Jett’s set was over I had decided that I was going to be on that stage one day.  Her guitarist had a blue sparkle top Les Paul Deluxe. I have one that I got in about ‘97.
I learned the bass line to “Heard it Through the Grapevine”, then “Wipeout”. For about the first year I had a guitar, I didn’t even know or try to learn chords. I just picked out melodies.


What first attracted you to the Blues & what does the BLUES mean to you?
I guess it’s that feeling you get… it sounds so good and feels so good and then there’s the moments when there’s so much soul coming out of a single note of their voice or in a single guitar note on the guitar. That’s what really gets me. I dig all the instruments, but it’s the soul you hear inside the vocal or the shooting out the end of the finger and through the string. It’s like a blissful sting.  The Blues means just about everything. To me, it’s not a separate thing, it’s pretty much everything.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
That’s a hard question. I’ve been playing guitar with Leon Russell for the past 4 years…. That’s been a pretty great 4 year moment!
When we toured with Elton John, being on stage with Leon and Elton and his band. It was very surreal.
Years ago, I had to play a few gigs with poison ivy really bad on my arms. They we’re painfully swollen and itchy.
I fell on stage once. In a successful effort to protect my guitar, I broke a couple ribs on the front edge of a drum riser.


Why do you play GUITAR? What does music offered you?
It’s fun and if I didn’t play, I would probably go insane. I don’t remember ever wondering what I was going to do with my life.  Playing music is what I was born to do.  In it, I feel I’m able to fully appreciate the gift of life that I was given.


What were your favorite guitars back then & where did you pick up your guitar style?
When I first started I wanted a guitar just like Eddie Van Halen. The first one I bought myself was a lower line Kramer Aerostar, red, with a tremelo bar.  I never really could play really fast like that so I guess that’s why I moved towards blues and music that can also be played slower, as long as the feeling is there. Angus Young really introduced me to the blues.


Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
I say a good bit from the heart, some from your brain… you gotta know what key your in right? But, mostly from the soul. I say that because sometimes when you play, it’s a mystery where it comes from. You know where your heart is.  You know where your brain is… but your soul is a mystery.


In which tune can someone hear the best of your guitar work, what characterizes your sound?
I feel like I got it right on “The Blues Most Every Day” and “Whiskey Wine Blues“, on my first record… “Don’t Wanna Live At All” on my second.


What would you use for a slide, what are your favorites effects pedals?
I use antique pill bottles. Glass with a pop top. They’re small and light weight. I found 6 of them for sale at an antique store in Austin, TX when I lived there, about 7 years ago I guess. I have 6 pedals on my board (including my Turbo Tuner ST-200, awesome by the way) that I used sparingly. I like my “BYOC” treble booster the best.. I only turn it on briefly on a few songs. I use a Hard Wire stereo chorus to emulate a spinning speaker on a few songs, I actually use it more than any other pedal all night when I’m with Leon.


What are the common factors of exhaling and playing the guitar?
If I don’t do it I’ll hyperventilate and/or expire. If you don’t take the time to let the notes “breathe”, it can become a muddled mess.


Are there any memories from Steamboat, Antone's, Saxon, which you’d like to share with us?
Those are all storied venues with spirits and shadows on the stages and in the dressing rooms. When I played those places the first time, I think  I felt and understood the importance of it.  The music fans in Austin are some of the best I’ve encountered.


Of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most?
I have to say Paul Rodgers. I met him very briefly as a fan and I don’t know him personally, but I will always respect and admire his voice and showmanship.


Which is the most interesting period in your life?
The last four years of my life has been amazing. I’ve been guitarist with Leon, a recent Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee. I became a father 3 years ago and that is more amazing every single day.


Difficult question, but who of the people you have worked with do you considers the best?
I think Leon is by far the best musician I’ve ever worked with. He has vast musical knowledge and experience that rivals anyone.


What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
The tour with Elton John, playing Walkin’ Blues solo to the huge audiences on the Dylan tour. I have very fond memories of my first bar gig. I was recovering from a car accident and ( I won’t go into the details, but) I was wearing a makeshift guard to protect my injuries from the weight of my guitar. I learned so much in that one night about performing and the actualities of performing for a live audience.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
Being hungry (literally and figuratively), Having bad shows has always been a motivator for me.  Meeting other great and inspiring musicians has always inspired me. Many years ago, I saw Derek Trucks in a small bar in Jacksonville, Al. There wasn’t a lot of people there that night. I was able to stand directly in front of Derek and just watch him. I was immediately a better player for having seen and heard him that night.


How did you first meet Leon Russell, how is your relationship with Leon?
I met Leon the day before the very first show I played with him. I rehearsed with a live cd for a week before that. I love Leon. He’s been very good to me. He’s let’s me play a solo song or two in his set and he allows me to sell my cd at his shows. He also gave me an important historical guitar.


When did you last laughing in gig, and why?
Usually I laugh when one of the other guys laughs at me when I mess up.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your tour with Bob Dylan?
I really enjoyed meeting Bob’s band. They we’re all very cool guys and awesome musicians. I particularly enjoyed meeting the guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton. Charlie was more than generous with his knowledge and opinions about guitars, amps, speakers etc.


How did you first meet  Bob Dylan & what kind of a guy is Bob Dylan?
I didn’t get to meet Bob. He was very private.


How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
I feel like I share my attentions with the other band members and the audience.  Both connections are very important to me.


I wonder if you could tell me a few things about the story of Freddie King’s guitar?

Leon told me about having the guitar and the story about getting it from Freddie, shortly after I joined the band. I went to his house and he showed it to me. I looked it over and picked around on it a few minutes. It looked like it had been in it’s case for a long time and needed a bit of attention. Some time passed and Leon brought up the subject of the guitar again and asked me if I would like to have it!! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t say no. That guitar has so much mojo. I love playing it. It has a narrow nut and fat neck, which is my favorite setup.


Tell me a few things about the story of “"Old News To Me"”, how that came about?
I had that album planned for a few years. I knew that I would be doing it all alone. I mainly wanted the freedom to take my time and argue only with myself about what was best.  When I moved back to Alabama I purposely bought a house with a detached building that would become my studio. My studio started out as a storage building/work shop. I pulled out the shelves and finished the inside and built a complete studio. Over 8 months I recorded the entire album myself, with the very fortunate exception of Leon’s co-write and vocal contribution on “Easy To Love”.


What do you think of Southern Rock & how close is it to BLUES?
I love Southern Rock.  It’s an undeniable part of my essence. I think it’s bluesy and country. It owes a lot to the blues, but I think it’s another style all it’s own.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
I think it’s because it’s just so good. It’s simple and basic and the most natural form of music. Most other music can be traced to the simplest of blues progressions. I think blues music in it’s evolution was like “the wheel”.  It undeniably makes the most sense. There may be updates on “the wheel” but they all come from the basic “wheel”. I don’t know if that makes sense to you….


The "Hallelujah Man”, how did this project come about, how was your recording hours?
It also took about 8 months to complete, but I actually spent a little less actual time in the studio. I was really busy on the road with Leon during the recording of that one. Fortunately I had some requests from fans for a new cd.. So that was a big motivating factor to do another one.  I had started writing the song “Hallelujah Man” before I ever finished my first CD. I played the riff and sang the chorus for Leon one night on the bus and he started singing out the verses. I put my phone on record and later finished the song using Leon’s contributions.


From the musical point of view is there any difference between your first and the second albums?
Yes, the second record is more song oriented and a bit more diverse in my opinion. It has a touch of southern rock and soul and a dash more of rock n roll… but it’s still a blues album.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a musician?
I have always had little fear of doing my own thing, my own way.  I obviously ‘copy’ some of my favorite influences but I’m not a afraid to have my own idea and put it out there.


Do any of the blues standards have any real personal feeling for you & what are some of your favorite standards?
Tore Down is big one. It’s got that shuffle, the  awesome guitar intro and the stops. I’ve always loved “I’m Ready” by Muddy Waters.


Where do you get inspiration for your songs & what musicians have influenced you most as a songwriter?
 I don’t know really where the actual inspiration comes from. I sometimes just get a feeling like “it’s time to write a song, right now”, and it can flow out in a couple minutes.  Although, I often just write an interesting piece of music and it just sits in my notebook for months or years and pops back up when it seems relavent. That’s what happened with “Hallelujah Man” and “Old News To Me”. I really admire the Beatles, Clapton, The Black Crowes, Al Green. Among many others, I write all kinds of songs in all kinds of styles.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues?
Eric Clapton comes to mind. He talks a lot about what he interpreted from the greats and pioneers of the blues.


Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, The 3 Kings, Clapton, Duane, Derek Trucks, Ry Cooder, Chuck Berry, Paul Rodgers, Susan Tedeschi.
I don’t buy a lot of records.. I usually get new CD’s at live shows. I mostly see bands that are opening for Leon, or when I have a night off while I’m on the road. A young lady named “Jenny O.“ opened some shows for Leon in California. She really blew me away! I got one of here discs.
I happened to see a guy at open mic night at the Rainbow Room in Hollywood. His name was Zack Dust. He is from Croatia. After watching him perform I had to get one of his records.


Which historical personalities of the blues would you wish to have met?
Albert, Freddie, Robert Johnson, Muddy


What would you ask of KINGS, BB, Albert, Freddie?
I guess I would just ask them to jam so I could see right up close what they’re doing…  and take it from there.


What would you say to Robert Johnson?
Probably nothing. I would just watch and listen. I guess I would say, “thank you”.


What made you want to work with Duane Allman?
From what I’ve read he was a rabid lover of making music and cool guy to hang out with.


What gift would you had given to Muddy Waters?
I don’t know, I’m not very good at giving gifts. I usually just give people money when I can get away with it. I assume if Muddy wanted it, Muddy got it for himself. Maybe I’d have the guts to give him one of my antique pill bottles to use as a slide, but he probably would have his own and never use the one I gave him.


Do you have a message for the Greek fans? Give one wish for the BLUES
I hope to see you soon! I hope to do my part to fulfill my wish for the Blues.  I know the Blues will never die and for my part, I’m gonna travel the world and play what I think the blues is, and ask the fans of the Blues to keep coming to the shows and keep listening and keep telling about the blues.


and one last question I would like to put a song next to each name.

Leon Russell: “Shootout on the Plantation“, Bob Dylan: ”Don’t Think Twice“, Alabama : “My Home‘s in Alabama“, Texas Blues: Freddie “Same Old Blues“, Guitar: Freddie King, “Ain’t Nobody‘s Business“, Chris Simmons: ”The Blues Most Every Day“.


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