Being a full-time student studying sound and audio engineering at SAE Institute in Nashville keeps William Simpkins focused, and a job at Banana Republic helps keep the bills paid. But it’s what Simpkins does when he isn’t in school or at his survival job that makes him tick.
“I’ve grown up in music,” he says, explaining that so far his music career has been a series of baby steps taking him ever closer to the big time.
“Things haven’t blown up or anything for me yet, but it’s cool,” he said. “It’s a process. I’ve recorded a few albums up here and have started making some connections.”
Simpkins’ family name is synonymous with music in his hometown of Sylacauga. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather – David, Buddy and Fess Simpkins – have directed band programs at Sylacauga High School for a half-century or longer. His mother, Catie Simpkins, is a noted singer, and her parents, Mack and Brenda Howell, also have music in their backgrounds.
He adds that his brother, Hayden, “could be the best musician in the family, if he tried. His voice is really good and he picks up on guitar faster than I ever could. He’s into golf, though.”
Like his brother, Simpkins said he never felt pressured to follow in his family’s musical footsteps, however.
“My parents didn’t put any expectations on me. They’ve allowed me to do what I feel like I need to do,” said Simpkins, now 21.
If he doesn’t follow the family tradition of leading high school bands, he knows his family supports his plan to complete his audio engineering program in December and to eventually attend seminary.
“Both of my parents want what I’m doing to take off for me. They’re very supportive,” he said.
After graduating from SHS in 2011, Simpkins had a scholarship to attend Gadsden State Community College to play drums in the jazz band, but he decided to take his chances in the Music City instead. After a false start in a house he rented via Craigslist, he decided to move back home.
“I needed to get my life together,” he said. “During that time I feel like personally it went from me identifying myself as a musician to … it became more important to trust God and what his plan was for me rather than try to make up everything for myself. From there on, I’ve tried to be obedient to what God wants me to do. Ultimately that led me back up here.”
Since returning to Nashville a couple years ago, Simpkins has focused carefully on school and career.
“I strictly am going to school for music,” he said. “I got a scholarship, which was weird because I got it by submitting a song I wrote for my own band. We were supposed to submit an audio recording, and I guess I had the best one so I won the scholarship.”
As for his life plan, “I’m really focused on just trying to leave a blank check in front of God. … A lot of musicians up here get defined as being a musician. I’d like to think that I play in this band and I write these songs because it’s my way of expressing who I am as a person. The music is a vehicle in that sense.”
Simpkins started playing drums when he was 5 years old.
“I played in church and through high school, and had my own bands here and there through school,” he said. “When it came time to graduate, my last high school band, Out of Shame, made an album. It got some attention from up here from Relient K, which was one of my favorite bands growing up. They’re in the Christian market up here. They’ve won Grammys. Their guitar player somehow heard that album, and I got a notification that he had added me on Facebook. He sent me a message and said he wanted to meet. A few days later, my dad and a friend and I rode up here, and he instantly became one of my best friends up here.”
In a city filled with music superstars, Simpkins has crossed paths with a few.
“The first really famous person I met was Keith Urban,” he said. “That was not even a week after moving up here after high school. I was working in a warehouse as a day job, and Keith Urban’s rehearsal spot was across the street. He came over where we were working and asked if we wanted to listen to him play a few songs. I got to play guitar with him. That was pretty cool.”
Simpkins said Reba McEntire was “just like on the TV show,” and Vince Gill “is probably the coolest celebrity I’ve met up here.”
“You see Taylor Swift around from time to time, but I’ve never actually met her,” he added.
Lately, Simpkins has been writing songs with Charlie Midnight, who has written for acts ranging from Cher to Jamey Johnson, from George Thorogood to the Doobie Brothers, and with Birmingham native Buck Johnson, who’s touring with Aerosmith as a keyboardist and backing vocalist.
Johnson and Simpkins have performed together with Birmingham-based Black Jacket Symphony, which re-creates classic albums as live performances.
“A selected album is performed in its entirety, by a group of hand-picked musicians, specifically selected for each album,” according to BJS’s website. “Each musician masters the fine details of the album to ensure it is performed as sonically perfect as it was recorded. The performance is separated into two sets, the first set features the album recreated as a true symphonic piece. The second set, featuring a selection of the album artist’s ‘greatest hits,’ opening the band to a more relaxed atmosphere, where the accompanying lighting and video effects deliver to the audience a truly epic rock performance.”
Simpkins and Johnson were involved in re-creating the Synchronicity album by Police.
“We played three nights in a row at WorkPlay,” said Simpkins, who played guitar and sang background vocals. “I was actually nervous because it was the first time I played a sold-out show.”
These days he’s also using what he’s learning at school to self-produce and engineer an album for his current band.
“The goal is to get our music heard – to get a record deal,” he said. “It’s hard to get your music to people by yourself. If we could get over the hump of getting a record deal, I think things would take off from there. More than that, I’m more focused on just trying to be a good dude and love everybody first and my music will maybe help. But of course, the business side is business.
“We’re really close to signing a booking agent. We’re making a new album now and trying to get a deal off of that. Like any other type of business, it’s about trying to find people who want to work with you and catapult the project into the public.”
With band mates Kevin Myers and Evan Moushon, Simpkins’ band, Altitudes, plays alternative pop rock music.
“I wouldn’t label it contemporary Christian,” he said. “Our songs deal with breakups and real-life issues. The fact that I’m a Christian comes out in the music. If people listen to the music, and especially people who believe as I do, they will see it come through without forcing it down everyone’s throat.”
With the demands on his time from school and work, Simpkins keeps a busy schedule.
“It’s usually pretty hectic during the week,” he said. “I’m trying to make my grades a priority. Apart from school, normally I’m in the studio every single night, either the one we book out for school or my studio at home.
“A lot of my friends go bowl a lot and we go listen to music a lot. That’s a given. But being a college student, a lot of those things require money, so there’s a lot of hanging out at friends’ houses. My favorite thing to do that’s cheap, there are a million and a half coffee shops that are fun to hang out at. You run into people you know every single time.
“I’m having a blast. Part of the fun of trying to ‘make it’ is the journey to the top.”
Contact Bill Kimber at firstname.lastname@example.org.