A Conversation with Jake Simpson (The Lil Smokies)
Words and Photos by Kevin Alan Lamb
Songs serve as the stitching between people and memories we wish to grow through, and hold onto. They become bookmarks in the pages of the stories of our lives which we recollect when our hearts are ripped wide open, reminding us that despite the present pain we feel, we have navigated troubled waters before, and possess the strength and passion to endure once again.
You can learn a lot about a man by asking him what songs he listens to when times are tough; here’s my conversation with Jake Simpson of The Lil Smokies, and the music which moves him through troubled waters.
KAL: So what was your familiarity with The Lil Smokies when you met them at Wondergrass?
JS: Well, I had been living in Lyons, Colorado and I was playing around with a very good friend of mine KC Groves. She used to play in Uncle Earl. I was playing with her and I had picked up some shows with other bands and I was looking for something more long term. It was Zebulon Bowles, the fiddle player for the Drunken Hearts. He sent me an email and was like hey you should check out The Lil Smokies, I think that they’re looking for a fiddler. So I looked them up and listened to some of their music, and I just forgotten about it because they were busy and I was really busy at the time. Then I got hired to play with Billy Strings for that weekend of WinterWonderGrass. I got there and I looked at the schedule and was like, "Oh, The Lil Smokies. Maybe I’ll go watch the set." So I went over there and checked them out and thought it was pretty cool. I went and talked to them afterwards and it ended up working out.
KAL: That’s pretty badass, how was that set with Billy?
JS: It was great man. I played, I want to say four or five shows leading up to WinterWonderGrass with Billy then we did WinterWonderGrass, and I mean honestly he shreds. But I was playing mandolin and that’s not really my forte, so I was playing with someone who was a master of their craft on an instrument that I wasn’t that good at. I couldn’t play as fast as he could!
KAL: It’s hard, you’re like "Man, if I had the fiddle I could keep up." What do you remember most about your first visit to Otus Supply with Campfire Caravan?
JS: Most distinctly, haha! I don’t know if you’re going to print this or not. I walked in the door with my shirt off and there was a bottle of whiskey sitting on the bar. That was my first memory of Otus Supply. I just remember hearing about it from Billy Strings, he played there a lot. Yeah, but the night before I don’t remember where we were, but it must have been doing something fun because we were all kinds of haggard. I had to learn one of the MIPSO songs because their lead singer Jacob was gone. So I was in a weird headspace you know? Because I really wanted to do that song right and I was listening to it all day long in the van. So yeah when I got to Otus I was worried, but also really excited because they asked me to sing one of their songs and I really respect their songwriting. It turned out alright, it was a good show.
KAL: Yeah it sure was, who’s your favorite fiddler?
JS: My absolute all time favorite fiddler is a guy named Richard Greene. He used to play with Bill Monroe in the 60s. Then he was in a band called Seatrain with Peter Rowan. Now this is my understanding. He sort of pioneered using pedals with the fiddle, but aside from that, he is just one of the most- I can pick him out of any fiddler when I’m listening to them. If you made me listen to 10 fiddle players and he was one of them, I could pick him out every time. Stylistically, he is just so unique. He sort of grew up playing in a similar way that I did. He was a classical player and turned bluegrass. His technique is just intricate. He does these slides that I haven’t really heard anyone else do. And also he’s just a hell of a guy. I’ve taken lots of lessons with him and he’s taught at fiddle camps. He’s just a real character.
KAL: As a fiddler do people just come up and present you fiddlers, like hey check this person out or try and introduce you to people?
JS: Oh yeah, I mean it’s difficult to say that one person is your absolute favorite. But there are all these guys who I respect and emulate my entire life, like Byron Berline, Jeremy Garrett. I met Jeremy in 2007 when I was... ah, I can’t do the math right now this second, but ya know, I was like 12 or 13. He was teaching at RockyGrass Academy, in line, leading up to RockyGrass. He took the time to sit down with me and a bunch of other kids at the Academy and really just teach us some good stuff. All these guys are super nice and just ready to help and teach all they can. I would add Darol Anger to that list. He’s just an incredible fiddler. He came up playing with Richard Greene and vice versa. Those guys are sort of masters of this kind of chop. I think Richard calls it the "Chunky Chop." It’s just a really interesting rhythmic technique that I really tried to latch onto and use in my playing.
KAL: Nice nice awesome. Name five songs that have helped you get through the most shit.
JS: Five songs. Well right off the top of my head there's a song that’s a tune. It’s an instrumental performed by Strength in Numbers. It’s called “One Winter’s Night’ and you know there was this really crummy thing that happened. A really good friend introduced me to Strength In Numbers, and actually the first time I went through the RockyGrass Academy she gave me this CD of Strength in Numbers and I couldn’t stop listening to it. "One Winter's Night" was her favorite song and she was like, "You gotta learn this and play this for me." At the time I was 12-13 and she was probably 16 and she was beautiful and I was like, "Hell yeah, I gotta learn this." I ended up learning it and recording it actually, and then she passed away. It was one of those well - crap deals. I mean we were very close and it’s a bigger deal than that, but it’s been years. Her name was Lexa. So yeah that was one of her songs and it used to make me sad, but now it reminds me of a lot of really good times. But yeah, I like to listen to that one.
You know surprisingly enough most of the songs that I listen to when I’m trying to get through stuff when I’m kind of sad are instrumentals because there’s that one and “Atta Boy” which was recorded for the Goat Rodeo Sessions with Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma and Stuart Duncan. Stuart Duncan is one of my absolute favorite fiddlers. Yeah, "Atta Boy," that one does something to me. I think whenever I’m trying to get through a rough time, for some reason I want to feel nostalgic, and then I start to feel better, and "Atta Boy" makes me feel nostalgic.
KAL: That’s kind of cool… like going backwards to go forward. Retracing your steps so you can realize whatever present pain is temporary, and this too shall pass.
JS: Exactly, and all these tunes are kind of linked in time to a moment with me. So that just brings another one to mind: A song called “Madness” by Muse. I just remember I had this really good friend from California. We had been talking back and forth and she just came into my life at the right time. A lot of chaos was about to happen and I had no idea. She introduced me to this song and I found out that I was going to be a dad. I called her and I was like, "Hey, guess what?" I kind of linked the chaos in that song to my own life. I had a daughter and she is the most amazing thing in the world, and her name is Lyric. That time in my life I was listening to that song a lot and I wish I could just yell at the top of my lungs sometimes. Then I would be in the car listening to that song singing along and I got to do that because it has this huge chorus at the end where he just belts out. Yeah man, it feels good. Nowadays I find myself gravitating more towards moody rock and roll. A lot of Kings of Leon and “Revelry” whenever I’m having a rough time. Then, you know, if I want to listen to something I know is just going to make me happy every time it’s “Big Country” by the Flecktones. It just works for me, makes me happy.
What songs get you through tough times? Give “Might As Well” by The Lil Smokies a shot. Catch Jake Simpson and The Lil Smokies in action Saturday with special guest Kind Country at The Parliament Room at Otus Supply. Just in case you were listening for one, This is a Good Sound.
Tickets for Lil Smokies at Otus Supply