As both a musician and writer, Bland Simpson’s body of work reflects a regionalism particular to North Carolina, rooted in the preservation and documentation of its natural landscapes and oral forms.
This summer, Simpson—also the longtime pianist and songwriter for the Red Clay Ramblers—celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of his debut album, Simpson, recorded in May of 1971 (a remastered release of the album is available on Simpson’s Bandcamp; all proceeds to go to the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina).
At the end of this month, North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky—his latest piece of history, memoir, and nature-traversing nonfiction—will be published by UNC Press. The INDY recently caught up with him to discuss how his work engages with North Carolina in all its many forms.
INDY Week: Your album, Simpson, from 1971, has been called an early country rock record. How would you describe the album and did you have any particular influences or artistic goals that had an impact on the music?
BLAND SIMPSON: Oh, I would describe it that way. That was a subgenre that had just kind of appeared. The Byrds had a lot to do with it with a record called Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and The Band had a tremendous lot to do with it with their first two records, Music from Big Pink and The Band. And I just loved that stuff.
That was the pocket into which I felt like I fit. And still do. I’ve been playing with the Red Clay Ramblers for about 35 years.
You’ve written several other books about North Carolina. What did you hope to capture in this one that you perhaps didn’t in your previous work?
The whole state. I really wanted to give a personal portrait of the state as I’ve seen it, as best as you can collect and collapse into one book. There’s no way you can get 52,000 square miles into a couple hundred pages or so. But the thing you can catch was, above all else, my love and affection for the state, and a strong preservation and conservation ethic.
We have an incredible climate, which is changing as it is everywhere. And what goes with that is the extraordinary overlap. We include the southern boundary of northern flora and fauna. We include the northern boundary of southern flora and fauna. So we are a great overlap of northern and southern species.
If you said, “What’s your favorite part of the state?” I would say, “The one I’m in at the moment.” Right now, I’m at my house in Orange County, which I just love to pieces. But if I were down in the Sandhills, I’d say, “Oh, man, you oughta be here, walking around in the longleaf pine.”
From the vantage point of 50 years on, what sort of historical impact do you think the album Simpson and that period in music history have had?
I would say modest, but I really hoped it would kind of help fit into the context of the history of the Red Clay Ramblers. The Ramblers were formed in 1972.
We had some great people playing on that record like Eric Weissberg, and Dave Olney was in the quartet, and Robbie Rothstein, later Rob Stoner, who was the bandleader for Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue that was all over the map just a few years later. But a lot of work went into it. And when I realized, “Oh, my, 50 years,” I thought, “I want to put it in context and bring it forward, for whatever it might do.”
My son listens to it. He’s listened to it a lot. He’s a musician, and I think he’s picked up a few tricks from it.
Over all the years you’ve lived in North Carolina, how have you seen the state change—in terms of its natural landscape, its people, or anything else that shapes its character—and what do you see for the future?
The state has certainly grown phenomenally. We were five million people back in the ‘70s, and we are now 10.5 and will be 11.5. We will add a million people in this decade. So I think our population growth has been fairly phenomenal. And that puts both big demands on everything and big opportunities. You know, big demands on how we transport each other, how we school each other, and how we grow what we grow.
Could we spend more on environmental protections? Yes. And that’s a serious theme, I think. It’s kind of a subtext, anyway, in this book. And we have to not go overlength, but we have to go to some lengths to keep and protect the natural areas that are really essential—not only to the environmental and ecological health of the province, but the spiritual health within it.
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