The young and restless hearts

by Colin Cutler

Join us from 6-8 on 28 February at Gibb’s Hundred Brewing for the next installment of the Small Batch Songwriters Series. The duo Chrysocolla (Seth Williams and Madi Heath) and Al Simmons will be playing their original tunes for this fourth show in the spring series.

When Seth’s mom started home schooling him and his sister 7 years ago, he found extra time and his dad’s cheap, old Yamaha guitar. He says of his home schooling background: “You’re able to get out and see more of the world than you would in a classroom.” He’s done his best to make that a reality—after winning the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society’s youth competition in October, he recently went to Memphis to perform in the International Blues Challenge, with a stop-in to a Nashville open mic.

Three years after he picked up guitar, Seth started playing lead at New Life, his church in Reidsville, where he still plays every Sunday he can. Two years ago, he started singing, playing shows, and regularly attending jam sessions, where he found encouragement from fellow musicians who liked his guitar chops. After meeting Madi Heath, another singer/songwriter who is now the other half of Chrysocolla, he began to think he could make a career out of music.

Besides being a regular at local open mics, writers’ rounds, and spots in Guilford and Rockingham County, Seth opened up for Jonathan Byrd, a nationally-touring musician from the Triangle, last summer at Doodad Farm. After winning the PBPS blues challenge at the Blind Tiger, he has an upcoming summer spot in the Carolina Blues Festival, held in Greensboro’s Barber Park.

With opportunities like that, he’s very conscious of his musical pedigree and history, “when I get up on stage, I wonder what big names have been on this stage before.” Chrysocolla wants to expand the duo to a four-piece band so they can start booking bigger venues and festival spots, and are currently working on a six-song EP—”we’re taking our time,” says Seth. “We want to do it right.” Al Simmons, with his time in Nashville, knows a little bit about doing things right and growing up around folks who are doing it. “It seems like everybody in my family played piano.” He turned out to be the kid who had to learn piano and hated it. “But I had a cousin with a baritone ukulele and an aunt with a guitar—and those were cool.” His life changed, though, when he was 18. He met fellow musician Mike Gaffney (Mike will be playing the Series in April), and they started playing their music together as a duo and sometime trio with Yana Reynolds. Al’s first 15 minutes of fame came soon after when they were featured on TV at a state zoo fundraiser.

In the late 70’s, a friend of his went to Nashville for a job interview and Al tagged along with a demo tape in his pocket. During the cab ride from the airport, he told the cabbie that he was a musician. The cabbie looked back at him and said, “My dad’s a record exec.” After being dropped off at the United Artists Tower, Al went to the top floor, still not quite believing the cabbie. When he walked into the office he’d been sent to, he knew this was serious—Don McLean’s American Pie gold record was on the wall and producer Dick O’Bitts told him to put the tape in the player. After quickly shuffling through the songs, “he chose a couple songs that we sent to a recording artist in England.”

Al, a career pharmacist, started the Rockinhorse Band with Hal Smith and Dean Overman—a dentist and a landscaper. “I’d never been in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he’d never played acoustic, and then we got a bluegrass player as our bassist. But it worked.” Rockinhorse got two singles in the country top 100 and toured up and down the East Coast opening for national acts like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Steve Wariner. “I had a chance to pick his brain about being a big star, and he said, ‘Every time I make an album, I have to go out on tour. I play in the same clubs, just making more money. And if I get sick, I have a whole lot more people to pay.'”

Since his busy period of touring and writing in the 90s, Al has focused on smaller gigs and playing shows with friends around North Carolina. His songwriting is that kind of introspective, thoughtful lyricism that comes with time and experience.