As Danno Simpson sat in the intake room of the Larimer County Jail sobering up, he tried to piece together the disjointed fragments of the night before. He remembered getting angry, swinging his fists and getting shoved into the back of a cop car. One thing was clear: he had been arrested.
At this moment, two things occurred to Simpson. First, he had to quit drinking. No more booze. Second, he had nowhere to go but up. So, why not try something crazy? Something he had dreamed about since he was 10 years old? Why not try to play music for a living?
“I sort of had this come to Jesus moment where I was like, ‘man, I’ve fucked my life up really bad and I might as well do exactly what I want to do,’” Simpson said.
Hanging with Heroes
A few years, a couple hundred gigs and countless nights in the back of his truck later, Simpson is on the way to his dream. He is quickly becoming the leading voice of the Americana scene in Colorado. His song “Honest Work,” which was recorded in a cramped apartment bathroom, has more than a million plays on Spotify. Last summer he shared a festival bill with Wilco, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Steel Woods, the last of which he then went on tour with. This February he will take the stage at Oskar Blues Colorado Springs on the 16th, and at The Moxi Theater in Greeley on the 17th for two nights of honest, gritty music.
For a 26-year-old kid that was booking all of his own gigs until about six months ago, it all still feels a bit surreal.
“I’ve gotten a chance to see all my heroes in real life,” he said. “It’s been crazy.”
New Friends, Same Guitar
The seeds of Simpson’s passion for music were planted early. His childhood was a happy one, but it was by no means conventional. His Dad was an ex-professional wrestler and serial entrepreneur who kept the family moving in pursuit of new business ventures. When he was a kid, they moved back and forth between Texas and Georgia twice before landing in Colorado, where his Dad hoped to start a cannabis farm.
With each move, Simpson was forced to start fresh — a new school and new friends. But, music was always there to keep him company. First Bob Dylan, then Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, then Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clarke. Every time he found himself friendless in a new town, his guitar was there waiting.
“I would lean on it when we moved to deal with the social adjustment,” Simpson said. “Music has always been the one thing I could sit and hyper focus on for like six hours at a time.”
Too Country for Punk
At this point, Simpson became a self-proclaimed “scenester” of the Fort Collins DIY punk scene. He was at every show and friends with all of the bands, but his own music was reserved for the beaten up acoustic guitar in the backroom of an afterparty.
“I tried to write punk music and my buddies all laughed at me,” he said. “They were like, ‘dude, those are country songs.’”
The same songs that never quite fit into the punk scene found an ear elsewhere. The year after his arrest, Simpson recorded an EP of original Americana tunes in his bathroom and put them on streaming services during the height of the pandemic. The songs spoke for themselves, and “Honest Work” began to slowly amass streams from country fans.
A Sleeping Bag in the Trunk
A few months later, he played his first open mic at the Swing Station, a rustic venue just outside Fort Collins in Laporte. After he finished his set, a talent buyer for a country bar way up the Poudre Canyon approached him and offered him a gig.
“I realized I could make 100 bucks just playing guitar,” Simpson said. “It was this weird meeting point of opportunity and necessity. I just ran with it.”
Within months, Simpson was able to leave behind the hard-labor jobs that had put food on the table since his run-in with the law. He threw a sleeping bag in the back of his truck and became his own tour manager. Over the past two years, the young singer/songwriter has covered a lot of ground in Colorado, Texas and everywhere in between.
Danno’s World Building
Wherever he goes, Simpson’s music has a way of drawing people in. From afar, the songs sound like standard, though beautifully sung, Americana fare. But Simpson’s true talent is his lyricism. The stories he tells are clever (but not too clever), emotional and, above all, full of vivid, human characters.
In “Pearly Gates,” Simpson dedicates a verse each to three people that passed. One for a father that drank himself to death, one to a friend that took a bullet to the chest in a bank heist and one to an ex that was consumed by a meth addiction. These aren’t the vague caricatures of humans that are found in lesser songwriter’s stories, these are affectionate, emotionally-wrought portraits of people struggling to get by in the modern West. By the time the chorus rolls around, Simpson offers some wry advice.
“And if you find yourself at them pearly gates, you oughta lie through your teeth and seal your fate,”
Just Some Hopeless Songs
The characters in “Pearly Gates” and Simpson’s other songs aren’t entirely real (Simpson’s dad is alive for one), but they aren’t entirely fictional either. They are pieces of himself and pieces of the people he’s known. And they all have something in common, they’re all down on their luck and close to giving up.
When I asked him why this was, he invoked something Townes Van Zandt once told a reporter who asked him why all of his songs are sad: ”They’re not all sad, some of them are hopeless,” Van Zandt said. Those songs, the hopeless ones, were the ones that stuck in Simpson’s head when he was a lonely kid in a new town. They’re the ones that he leaned on when he was getting sober. And they’re the type of songs that, after having been through all of that, he’s eager to share with the world.
“Letting hopeless people know they’re not alone is a way of giving them hope,” he said.