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Cadillac Sky adds a Texas twist

By John Lupton, January 2007

For all its renown as the home of American musical icons like Bob Wills, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Townes Van Zandt, there have been relatively few top-rank bluegrass bands to come out of the Lone Star State. As he and his Cadillac Sky band mates await the late January release of their debut CD "Blind Man Walking" on Skaggs Family, Fort Worth native Bryan Simpson hopes the disc will introduce them to new fans as a band well-grounded in bluegrass tradition but with a "Texas twist" all their own.

In addition to being the band's founder, lead singer and mandolin player, Simpson, 31, is the primary songwriter, and he points to "Never Been So Blue," a tribute to Bill Monroe as evidence of their traditional roots.

"The first few years I grew up listening to - it's kind of ironic at this point - Ricky Skaggs and J. D. Crowe and the New South, and bands like that when I was first getting into bluegrass. I was like five, six, seven, eight years old when my grandpa was introducing me to it, and those were the kinds of bands...of the times. It didn't take long until I wanted to find out what it was really all about. I guess I had an old soul at a young age at some point because I got interested in Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and all that and Ralph Stanley and all the early recordings. Bill was a huge influence on me."

"I love his mandolin playing, I love his just God-like presence, sort of, and his attention to detail and his singing and songwriting and all that stuff. I know that he's been a big factor in my musicianship."

"I wrote that song after I read a story on the Internet about his passing and his funeral, one person's description of how that was...with a good buddy of mine, Kris Bergenes. That was a nice tribute to put on the record because most of the record, it's sort of progressive, and that song's a little more traditional sounding. We want people to know where our roots are and what it's all about."

If Simpson's name sounds familiar, his writing credits appear on more than a few albums in recent years from the likes of George Strait and Kenny Rogers. Brad Martin's version of Simpson's "Before I Knew Better" hit 15 on the country charts in 2002. When it comes to material for his own band, though, Simpson acknowledges that he takes an alternative - and usually off-beat - approach.

"Usually our songs are a little more quirky and different, and we approach them to where we don't want to sound like anybody else. Usually, it's actually hard for me to write songs for us. Lately it's been easier, I've started to maybe figure out what our voice is, what we kind of sound like - or at least, what we're trying to sound like. But when I write a George Strait song, I try to envision George Strait singing the song, and that doesn't pigeonhole him much. He sings a lot of different kinds of songs...I just try to keep listening to music, to different kinds of music. I know things that won't work for the commercial market as much, and sometimes those are the things that work for us."

Simpson pauses a second and laughs before adding, "I'm not sure that's a good thing for the band...but in order to seem different, we try to do something that we're not hearing everybody else doing, and sometimes you've got to keep a keen ear for that when you're writing songs for artists because you do want to hear them on the radio. That's how I feed my family."

The band came together at the end of 2002.

"I had been writing for a while and had just a plethora of songs I felt like I wanted to have a vehicle for," says Simpson. "I was writing commercial music, but I really had a heart for acoustic music and roots music and had grown up playing that stuff, and was really desiring to have a band that could do what I wanted to do with these songs. I kind of knew it would take a band of certain kind of talents and abilities to be able to pull the songs off because some of the songs are a little bit left-of-center, and I wanted to do them, you know, sort of progressive, acoustically. So, I knew I needed players of a certain ability. "

After a few false starts, Simpson was still searching for kindred musical souls for his band when he performed at a local benefit as part of a pickup band. One of the other band members pointed out to Simpson the banjo player in one of the other bands (also a pickup crew) whose gold-plated banjo carried the inscription of National Banjo Champ, as awarded at the annual Winfield, Kansas festival. The owner was New Mexico native Matt Menefee, then still a teenager (now 22).

"We started talking and talked to the end of the next day, and we got together at my mother-in-law's house, and that's kind of when the planets collided. Because once I started playing with (Matt), he was exactly what I was looking for, somebody that I thought we both matched up artistically well and kind of had the same vision of what we wanted to do. So from there we just decided we could have sort of a 'core thing' that we could find band mates to join around us."

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