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Old Guitars and the Local Musicians Who Love Them - Scott Simpson

scott simpson with a guitar
Scott Simpson at his home in Spearfish Canyon

Scott Simpson is an educator, poet, songwriter and guitarist living in Spearfish Canyon. SDPB spoke with Simpson at length about guitars, music, and the ways in which music, lyrics, and even musical instruments connect performers with audiences, to emotions, memories, and, sometimes, to people no longer present.

Simpson recorded his first full-length album in 2000. The title track to the album, "Ozzie's Guitar" tells the story of an old guitar once owned by Simpson's wife's grandfather.

"Ozzies Guitar" - Scott Simpson

SDPB: Tell me about Ozzie’s guitar.

Scott Simpson: Ozzie was my wife's grandfather. Ozzie Lessly. He was a colorful character who did a lot of work in a lot of different places. What my wife told me about was, he would always come to visit. He drove this El Camino and he'd have all his bags in the back and he always had this guitar. And he would come and he would tell stories. He’d catch them up on what he'd been doing in the places that he'd been. And then he would sing a few songs to the kids and stuff before they went to bed. Listening to my wife, he was, he was just, he was this adventurer and the guitar represented that. 

So when we got married, I always noticed this guitar sitting in the corner. It’s a classical guitar and should have had nylon strings on it all along but Ozzie had put on steel strings ‘cause that's the sound he wanted. And so, steel strings on a classical guitar kind of wears it out after a while. It was beat up. My wife's parents said, ‘Hey, would you guys like this?’ because they knew I was a musician. I said, yeah, yeah, that'd be great. So I took it home and restrung it and my wife was telling me about these stories. 

The guitar has moved around with us for a while. We lived for a little bit Buffalo Gap, Texas and we had a dry creek bed in our backyard. It was called Dry Creek and it was just a deep ditch. Well, we had a thousand-year flood that happened one night. And it was raining, raining, raining, raining, raining, and our kids were there. And I looked out on one lightening flash, and I could still see the grass. The next lightning flash, it was just a river. And so we got out. We tossed the dogs and the kids in the car and we drove out. We had a big Suburban and got out before it got too high. But we had horses and so I was worried about the horses, and we had stuff… and his guitar got in water. It just kind of came apart. 

So then it sat around for a couple of years in a sad shape and I decided, well, I'm just going to do what I can do. I'm not going to pay a luthier to fix this. It wasn't an expensive guitar to begin with but I'll put it together and see what I can do, which I did. And so that's where it's at now. We're going to see if we can get part of a song, at least part of “Ozzie’s Guitar.”

SDPB: Seems like there’s a ghost in the room. It’s a happy ghost…

Scott Simpson: I like to think of it that way. You know music, in so many cultures, isn't only about who’s physically present in the room. Music, whether you’re talking about hymns, whether you’re talking about sacred songs of the Lakota, Dakota people, whether you’re talking about even symphonies that evoke another place, another time… I think music has that capacity to connect us with something and someone beyond just right here in physical presence.

SDPB: When did you first pick up a guitar? Do you recall that moment or that time? 

Scott Simpson: I got a guitar for Christmas one time and it was a kid's guitar. It was a little bitty one. It was one of those small but it was a real guitar, it was wood and it was relatively cheap. My parents got that for me for Christmas ‘cause we lived on a college campus. My parents were dorm parents and my dad taught at the college and I saw all these college kids, you know, back in probably the early seventies and having guitars and stuff. That was the big thing. And I want a guitar. So they got me a small guitar and like always, you know, it was cheap and it worked but it was hard on the fingers.  Not only because I was just getting started, but you know, the action was really high. But I loved it. I loved the smell of it. I loved strumming it and I loved the sound. Tut you know, after a little bit you say, ‘I want to sound a little bit better’ and I thought a bigger guitar would be better for me. I had an uncle who had an old arch top and I don't even know what brand it was. It might've been some huge, valuable thing. I had no idea. I didn't know anything about it. He gave that to me and I thought, oh, this is going to be great. It's going to sound so good. Well, talk about high action. I mean, I couldn't get those strings down to the, to the frets 

So anyway, so that was kind of frustrating. And then a little bit later, I think I picked something up. It may have been at a garage sale or something I got a couple of electric guitars when I was in high school. I wasn't in a band or anything so it was just kind of playing along with some of the stuff that I really liked. But through all that time I took lessons - when I was probably nine or 10. I learned the things you learn. ‘Down by the Seashore Marianne” and, you know, these very simple songs. Which I guess was good. It got me started but those were not the songs I wanted to play. And it seemed like a lot of work with not a big payoff. So I didn't take lessons very long at all. I just got kind of discouraged.
In high school, I played drums in band. I still had a couple of electric guitars kind of sitting in the corner that I took with me to college. But not a lot happened with the guitar in high school. It really picked up again, later in college.

SDPB: But you were writing songs from an early age?

Scott Simpson: My parents bought a cassette recorder when I was really young. Six or seven. My mom was a reading teacher and so I think she got it so that she could… it was for some projects she was working on for her masters maybe. She would record me reading things or record me answering questions, but then I thought maybe she would give me my own cassette. And then I would just, I'd make up songs and, you know, come up with stuff. They were kind of sing song poems. At that point, I didn't think of songs and poems as being something really different. And so, I was writing a lot of poems and writing songs in high school. But writing more poems probably. And that was a real passion. I had some friends and we were all kind of nerdy and we did that.

The first summer after my freshman year in college… the college had a band that would tour around and perform at little camps, youth camps, to kind of recruit and they needed a drummer. And I said, well, yeah, I can still play drums. And I thought, you know, I'm not going to bring those electric guitars that I had. They were kind of garbage. I thought I'm going to go get an acoustic guitar somewhere that I can afford. And I'm going to bring my notebook and I'm going to write songs because I'm going to be with some other guys who were playing guitar. I'm gonna get back into that. I'm gonna pick some of that up again. And so I bought a Hondo Two guitar. No one would know that except the people who play Hondo Twos.

SDPB: Was there a Hondo One?

Scott Simpson: I've never seen a Honda One. But here's the interesting thing. I got it at a secondhand store and the tuners had broken off. The metal part was still there but the turn part wasn't there. And so I got some little blocks of wood and drilled some little holes so that I could tune it. That summer, we lived mostly in a van, except when we were at the camps. And I was with like three other guys who were playing guitar. My job was playing the drums but after all that, in the evenings, I started with a fever - just writing songs. That's rare. And it had really hasn't stopped since then. It was so exciting because I could hear what I wanted the song to be. I could hear what it was but, of course, my guitar skills were just okay. But they just weren't there, you know? I think that's the thing about songwriting. You could hear what the song can be, even if you're not quite getting it all the way there. 

I got married a few years later. I still had that Honda Two, I had sheets and sheets of songs that I had written. We were in Lubbock, Texas, and I went into a gas station and I didn't lock my (car) door and someone stole the case with the Hondo Two, which I didn't care about it because frankly, if I tried to pawn the Hondo Two they wouldn't have taken it. But I had all these sheets of songs that I had written and probably only three or four that I had written down elsewhere. So I lost I don't know how many songs there. And I lost the Hondo Two but that gave me an excuse to you know, look around for a slightly better guitar. It was about time. I needed to step up from the Hondo Two. 

SDPB: We were talking about the stories in songs and the words and the essence of a song being. I think you were saying that’s more important to you than the guitar music.

Scott Simpson: Yeah, well, it's not just the lyrics. I think that's one misconception. Sometimes people like to pit the music against the lyrics. Well, what's most important? Is it the lyrics or is it the music? I think the answer is it's both because frankly, and I'm going to paint with a real broad brush here, great song lyrics are often lousy poems and great poems make lousy songs quite often. It's this unique combination of the right lyrics with the right music. And I would add on the right instrument. Because here's the problem I have. I have a bunch of different instruments. My main instrument is the guitar, usually the acoustic guitar, but especially if I'm doing songwriting, maybe I’m deciding on a classical guitar with nylon strings. That's going to take me one place. Or am I going to start with the steel string acoustic? Or am I going to go with a ukulele that's, that's pretty much tuned the same way? Or a tenor banjo, which I tune the same way? Because all of those take me to really different places. Then I've got the mandolin, which for me is not a songwriting instrument. It would be more of an accompaniment instrument because I work in a studio most of the time, layering the guitars, and then layering some keyboard, adding in some percussion and then figuring it out. So what's going to be the lead instrument? You know, we've got the vocals and I'll put down the vocals along with the bass of the music. 

But the core of the music is usually the guitar. And then you say, but I want something to counter the vocal, to fill in those, those little gap, to add something. Usually that's a mandolin. Sometimes it might be a harmonica. Sometimes it might be the acoustic guitar or the electric guitar, you know, depending what the song seems like it's calling for. When I was on the Hondo Two, I knew what the song could be but I didn't have equipment. I didn't have other instruments. I didn't have a band that could collaborate and make it happen. And the challenge that you always have with a band, and this is only seems like a challenge to people who would like to work in a studio, is that when the band performs, it may be incredible, but then it's gone.

SDPB: It's gone?

Scott Simpson: It doesn't come back again. Somebody may have recorded it, but, you know, if it's gone well, that makes it an amazing once in a lifetime thing. But there's a sadness there. It’s a different sort of thing than say, in the recording studio picking out the right instruments for different tracks, layering them on, figuring out, oh, I've got too much of that. Let's peel some of that back. Now let's layer this in, now let's counter that rhythm with a completely different rhythm. Oh my gosh, that's crazy what that does in stereo when you counter that with this! That's something that you can do with a really great band but for someone like me who doesn't really have that, and we… and it's hard to get people together to spin that kind of energy. The studio allows me to be my own band

At different times I've been better on different instruments because they're the ones that I've been using a lot. It's like right now, I'm probably a little rusty on the mandolin ‘cause I haven't been using it a whole lot. But the guitar is always kind of there in the in the center. It's the beginning place, I think. Especially for the song writing.

In high school I was into music that was… that was really sort of pre-my-era. It was (music from) the earlier seventies and late sixties. I was in high school in the early eighties. The music coming out of Kansas. I liked Led Zeppelin. I always liked their hard stuff. I liked their electric stuff but I loved it when they, like, ramble on. I mean, like when they went acoustic it was like, oh my gosh, they can do that! That's just amazing that they can bridge that. So in some of my stuff I've tried to tried to bridge that as well, in good ways. 

The voice is a big part of it. Early on, I was frustrated with my voice. I think my voice hasn't gotten better. I think I've just gotten less frustrated with it. It's just kind of like, you know, hey, it is what it is. So that's, you know, you just work with that.

I went through a period in college where I was listening to a jazz group called Oregon. And they were phenomenal because they did a lot of improvisation, as many jazz groups do, but they had one piece called Free Piece, which was on a live album where these four guys got together. And one of them just began to do something on an instrument, and then this one came in, and then this one. They had no plan. It was a sensory journey. Just, just amazing. That sort of thing is also something that I aspire to, which really is something that is hard to do without a studio setting. You really can't construct and build something unless you're that good, you know? Those guys were completely in sync and they were amazing multi-instrumentalist musicians and they could improvise that sort of thing. Well, we can come close to that, maybe with some time and effort in a studio where you can lay something down, pull it back, add something else in, pull it back, you add on you strip off almost like a visual art, you know?

SDPB: Yeah. Those get togethers that result in some kind of synergy, I guess.

Scott Simpson: And, you know, there are there days when I'm jealous of that sort of thing. I have some friends who are in bands and they collaborate all the time with folks and it's fantastic. And I love that. And I've done that occasionally. But I just don't get to do that much because that's not my main gig. I've got another job and I… most of my music has to be done in here. But, I feel like they're different things. At some point you have to say, ‘Hey, this is the thing that I do.’ 

That reminds me of another influence. Tom Paxton was a folk artist. He came to Spearfish, back in, I think, ‘98 and he did a song writing workshop. Like a three-day thing. One of the things that he said just landed on me. He said, “You know, I can listen to amazing instrumentalists and amazing guitarists and amazing songwriters. I can say, oh, that's so great. I wish I could do that. But then he said, what you have to do is, you have to find your palette. You don't have somebody else's palette, you can admire it, you can stand back and you can listen to it and say, wow, that is amazing. But what you've got to do is find yours.” I think it didn't make a lot of sense to me at the time I thought, well, it just means I'm not that good. I'm only I'm limited to what I can do, but over time, I've kind of allowed myself to do that, which means I play most things. 
The challenge to that is that it's this paradox. You can feel good that a Scott Simpson song sounds like a Scott Simpson song. You can feel good about that until you begin to say every Scott Simpson song sounds exactly the same. So you've got this paradox. The continuity, the palette, the consistent palette is good, but then you've got to say, where is it that I need to push it just a little? And if you look at great artists like John Denver, like James Taylor, like Neil Young, like any great songwriter, singer, performer, you can hear them do something and you say, yeah, that's them. But then you say, uh, they challenged themselves and do something else.

Find out more about Scott Simpson and his music at