Bland Simpson

By Johnny Kerr


PIANO MAN OF MANY TALENTS


Bland Simpson, a native of Eastern North Carolina, has performed and recorded with the Red-Clay Ramblers Band for many years; collaborated on, or contributed to, 10 musical stage productions and written five books. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at UNC Chapel Hill and co-director of the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship created four years ago by Frank Borden Hanes Sr. of Winston-Salem. In November 2005 he was honored as the Fine Arts recipient of the "North Carolina Award," the highest civilian honor the state bestows.

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It all started with an eastern North Carolina boy who lived in Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River. "You hear the term 'charmed life,' but looking back, I realize I had a charmed life growing up on the coast," Bland Simpson revealed.

He moved with his family to Chapel Hill when he was just shy of 11 and learned to play piano from friend Bobby Scott the next year. After graduating from Chapel Hill High School in 1966, he enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in political science. While attending Carolina, he lived for a year at the University Methodist Church on Franklin Street, where his rent was free in exchange for watching over the property at night. "The great thing about living there was that there were about 10 Sunday school classrooms, and every one of them had a piano," he remembered. "At night I would just roam from room to room playing different pianos; now that I think about it, I sound like some kind of phantom of the opera."

Simpson credits Robbie Robertson of The Band and Bob Dylan for having the most influence on his music. And there was a young man from Chapel Hill named James Taylor, who was having a lot of success as a singer-songwriter after the release of his first album James Taylor. Simpson had grown up in town with Taylor and knew him well. Seeing his success was "electrifying" for Simpson's own ambitions.
On a whim, he hitchhiked to Woodstock, NY, just before Christmas 1968, to find Bob Dylan, who was living there at the time. "I just walked up to the front door and knocked," said Simpson. "Dylan came out and talked to me for about 30 minutes. He could not have been more gracious." Simpson told Dylan about a friend of his who was having some success with music. "Then he asked me in that classic Dylan twang, 'who might that friend be?'" Simpson told him about James Taylor. "He told me George Harrison had brought the album over a few days ago and he liked it," said Simpson. "After I went back to Chapel Hill I saw James at his home and was glad to be able to say, 'Hey man, Bob Dylan told me he likes your album!'"

In 1969, Simpson moved to New York City to pursue his goal of becoming a singer-songwriter, an important time for his career in many ways. There he met Howie Harris, a Juilliard-trained piano man who played in joints around the city. "Howie was a great jazz player, but he was a great gospel pianist too," Simpson recalled. "He took me under his wing and taught me some amazing things on the piano. "Howie, like my friend Bobby Scott, has passed away now, but they are both still in my head, heart and hands," he said, his voice and expression betraying emotion.

Simpson had his first songwriting contract in The Big Apple with music industry icon Albert Grossman, who managed musicians including Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Band. Soon he released his first album on Columbia Records. "Then a very wise man by the name of Ed Freeman, who produced Don McLean's Miss American Pie, told me to go back and write about the South; 'go home and sharpen your knife' he told me," Simpson recalled. Back in North Carolina in the early 1970s, it wasn't long before he was caught up in the vibrant music scene in Chapel Hill.

A quick perusal of all the different creative works of Bland Simpson reveals a common theme: the South, particularly coastal North Carolina. He joined the Tony-Award winning string band The Red Clay Ramblers as piano player and keyboardist in 1986. The Ramblers, an institution in the region since 1972, have produced many albums including Yonder, Twisted Laurel, and the new Original Cast Recording of their latest musical, Lone Star Love, or The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas. Simpson has co-authored and performed in a number of musical stage productions, including Diamond Studs, Hot Grog, Fool Moon and King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running. He played Dub Dubose, the mechanic, in Kudzu, a musical he and fellow Rambler Jack Herrick collaborated on with Hillsborough's Doug Marlette, author of the famous comic strip.

(Diamond Studs is set to be reprised by Mojo Productions at the Barn at Fearrington Village, January 26.)

Simpson lives in the dairyland of Bingham Township west of Chapel Hill with his wife Ann Cary Simpson, who is Associate Dean for Development at UNC's School of Government. Ann was the photographer for their 1997 book Into the Sound Country, A Carolinian's Coastal Plain. Their second collaboration, The Inner Islands, will be brought out by UNC Press, Fall 2006. Bland is also author of The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey, The Great Dismal, Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals and Heart of the Country.

Simpson has twins, Hunter and Susannah, who are juniors at Carolina, and he and Ann have a 13-year-old daughter, Cary, who plays the alto sax. "The other night," said Simpson, "she informed us that she had named her sax 'Coltrane'-I was impressed."