“I’m not one to contemplate on fate,” Anthony Simpkins says with a grin. It’s a cool night in April and Simpkins is sitting outside the American Legion Post 82 in East Nashville, Tennessee, and grinning at how folksy he sounds describing the unlikely path his life has taken. At 25, he has no college degree, no insider or family connections, and, until a few years ago, a work history heavy on restaurant jobs after a brief adolescent foray into psychedelic-mushroom sales earned him six years probation. Despite — or maybe because of — all that, he’s built an influential music platform on Youtube with a large, loyal following, and a rare power to connect independent musicians to a national audience.
Lomax is the famed music archivist known for his idea of the “global jukebox” and often credited with sparking the Sixties folk revival. “I was digging into Alan Lomax and once I found him and his father before him, the floodgates opened,” Simpkins says. Beginning in 1937 under the direction of his father, John, head of the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song, Lomax began a series of expeditions to capture traditional and indigenous American music. He spent years traveling the country documenting everything he found. A New York Times report on Lomax’s archives found “5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts.”
Where Lomax was trying to find and preserve dying folkways, much of it the art of former slaves in the deep South, his disciple seeks out young musicians playing older styles of music. “It’s just as worthy and valuable,” Simpkins says, “to go out there and capture contemporary artists because what if we would have caught some of these Alan Lomax guys in their heyday? He got em all when they were, like, 60. Roscoe Holcomb said he hadn’t even picked up an instrument in 30 or 40 years. He’d been working in a coal mine.” There are other motivations as well. “I wanted to capture these young guys and a lot of ’em probably aren’t gonna live to that age honestly.
“People always ask how they can be on the channel. I look for authenticity,” Simpkins continues. “I’m looking for people … the kind of guys that ain’t gonna play the Tiny Desk Concert on NPR anytime soon. Why? Because they’re drug addicts, they’re weirdos, they’re not able to get their music out there. They’re talented but they shoot themselves in the foot.”
If “contemporary Americana” wasn’t the kind of phrase that made purists cringe, it would be a good way to describe the blend of country, indie rock, blues and folk that Gems features.
Aside from a few early missteps, the nearly 200 videos on the channel were all made for free out of Simpkins’ love for the music. In the early years, most were shot and edited by him alone and featured friends, and friends of friends.
A good example of the GemsOnVHS aesthetic is the video for the Tennessee singer-songwriter Benjamin Tod covering “The Mountain.” Almost all the music featured on Gems is original but “The Mountain” is a cover, originally penned by Steve Earle, the high poet of Nashville’s outlaw-folk and country-fuckup traditions.
As the video opens, Tod is hanging onto a moving freight train smoking a cigarette. The plucked notes of a banjo play. He wears a brown leather vest beneath a tan suede jacket and a flat wide-brimmed hat. A gold pointed star is pinned to the jacket. It’s like a Civil War–era sheriff’s costume taken from a movie set. Yet, in spite of his age and the black arrows tattooed on his neck, the getup looks natural.
What Simpkins lacks in film and video training — he has none — he makes up for with a cinematic eye and a willingness to take risks for the cause. For instance: Shooting on the back of a freight train to capture Tod swigging whiskey between cars and staring off through a silver mist at the red earth and green fields of South Dakota. It could be the start of a modern Western until the video cuts to Tod strumming a banjo. He’s standing beside the statue of Chief Washakie outside Wyoming’s Capitol Building when the first line comes: “I was born on this mountain a long time ago.”
Tod’s solo videos on GemsOnVHS and those featuring his main act, a duo called Lost Dog Street Band that includes his wife Ashley Mae on fiddle, have racked up millions of views. The comments on YouTube and in Reddit threads are almost worshipful:
Music that is real is so hard to come by. I love you two so much. You speak to my soul, and only beauty exists after listening to your music.
What inspires such feeling in the followers of Lost Dog Street Band must have something to do with Tod’s voice, which sounds both distant and immediate, old and pure of feeling. There’s a love of the road in it, too, and Simpkins is talented enough to capture some of that elusive, wandering feeling on film.
In November of 2017 a new video appeared on the Gems channel. A fresh-faced Anthony Simpkins kneeled on a hilltop in front of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. “When I started this channel in 2012, I was 18. I had no idea what I was doing. I bought a camera. I was watching a lot of Alan Lomax, Vincent Moon’s La Blogotheque.” Moon is a Parisian filmmaker and the co-creator in 2006 of the popular and taste-making video project La Blogotheque. He gained a large following for his single-take, vérité-style videos known as “takeaways” that captured musicians playing in offstage, offbeat settings: R.E.M. performing in a station wagon, the Arcade Fire in an elevator and Mac DeMarco strolling through a park.
Simpkins’ “Who is Gems” video might have come as a surprise for viewers who only knew the channel through the quality of its music curation and videos. Gems was not the brainchild of an indie label, promoter or music professional of any kind, as one might have assumed, but a single high-school graduate with a camera.
“Today we’re sitting at 16,000 subscribers, 8 million views and it goes up every day. I’m blown away,” Simpkins says in the video. That was in late November 2017. Less than a year later, the numbers have doubled to 33,000 subscribers and more than 17 million views. It’s become a truism that the music industry is broken, but projects like Simpkins’ are filling the hole once reserved for major labels, radio and MTV, shaping tastes and exposing artists to a national audience.
Simpkins originally hails from the swamps of Lakeland, Florida. “They’re real working-class people,” he says about his parents. “My stepdad’s a truck driver and my mom works in truck parts.” Their tastes in music ran toward “Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Meatloaf. My dad loved Iron Maiden. The older they get the more country music is OK.” When Simpkins was in middle school the family moved to Nashville. In the mid-2000s, he entered high school, “Nashville had a big renaissance of garage rock and Americana type music.” He began to dabble himself, picking up the banjo when he was 16.
“I was right out of high school living with some friends in a little attic bussing tables at an Italian restaurant,” Simpkins says. “At night I’m going out and drinking 40s, hanging out and going to shows with punks, going wild..”
At the same time, he was just starting to appreciate Moon’s videos. “I’m looking around and I’m like, ‘The musicians around me are just as good as all these people,’” Simpkins says. “The talent here was so vast that I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”
Early in the Spring of this year, Lost Dog Street Band drove into Nashville. They were in town to record a new video with Simpkins, their 19th for GemsOnVHS including Benjamin’s solo songs, since the channel launched in 2011.
Ashley Mae Tod grew up in the black hills of South Dakota — the same countryside Benjamin passes through on the back of a freight train in his video for “The Mountain.” As a teenager she started spending summers in Nashville after her radio-DJ mom moved there. “The first time we ever met was at a punk show,” Mae says of her now-husband. She was 16 and he was 15.
Benjamin Tod grew up in Cottontown, Tennessee, Sumner county, 30 miles northeast of Nashville. He started coming into the city at “around 12” and not long after was playing on the streets under the tutelage of an older musician.
“I got expelled from school when I was 14,” he says. “Before then I had been in and out of borderline state’s custody; juvenile detention. I was raised by my grandparents because my parents split up or couldn’t take care of me for addiction and, you know, legal reasons. By the time I was eight, my grandparents were splitting up. At around 12 my grandma and one of my sisters moved to hermitage but it was a really small lot and it wasn’t comfortable for me and by that age my grandma just kind of deferred that it was a lot easier to just let me do what I want and hope that I didn’t end up in jail than to call the cops every time I ran away.”
Not long after that he was on the road. “We hopped our first train together and that was six years ago,” Benjamin says in the intro to the video for their 2014 song “Fall From Grace.” He’s sitting next to Ashley Mae in the narrow bedroom of their Kentucky home. “I was 17 and you were …,” he turns — “17,” she finishes.
When Mae went off to college, Tod stayed on the road. He busked on the streets and honed his chops playing with other members of the train-hopping traveller scene where crust-punk, folk and country musicians and and hard drugs regularly mix. “I was using drugs and I would come to her dorm all strung out, sickly, and she’d take care of me,” Tod says in the video for “Fall From Grace,” eliciting a tender laugh from Mae. “Well, it was really sad,” she says looking at him over her shoulder, “but, I don’t know … you’ll live with that when you love somebody.“
It’s been four years since then and while Tod had been clean for months when he rolled into Nashville this April, he has struggled along the way. “I’m living lowdown and I’m using again. I’m hating my name ’cause I’m cursed like my kin,” he sings in the opening lines of “Using Again,” a song from his recent solo record I Will Rise.
The trip to Nashville to shoot with Simpkins was Lost Dog’s last stop before heading out on the road for a short tour. Between touring, record sales on sites like Bandcamp and now money from their videos on Gems, they’re able to make a living as musicians. It gives them the time to write and record new music and focus on homesteading their property in Kentucky.
“All I can relate that to is Tony doing an incredible job presenting … ,” Benjamin says of Simpkins. “These aren’t casual fans, but it’s not a casual band and it’s not casual music.”
The Tods aren’t the only musicians connecting with a large and passionate following through Gems. Last August the channel featured its first video by an artist named Sierra Ferrell singing an original song, “Rosemary.” In the description, Simpkins wrote, “The first time I met Sierra, she asked me to dance at the Honky Tonk Tuesday night at the American Legion in Nashville. Of course I’d heard of her before — from Lost Dog and various bands and vagabonds who told me of her amazing old time singing and habit of blowing into (and out of) town.” This spring, Ferrell was back in town to record new songs and videos and make a go of things but also very much giving the impression that she might, if the spirit moved her, ask some lucky soul to dance and then split town before he could find out her name.
Ferrell grew up in West Virginia around Charleston and started busking in the streets there before she knew what it was called. “I would always walk around with a guitar but I didn’t really know it was street performing until later years.” In her early twenties, after years of playing music on her own and in bands, she was in the grips of addiction. “There’s a huge drug epidemic in West Virginia,” she says. “It was a very hard time in my life.” Her singing blends folk, country and ragtime in a tone that has the foggy warmth of a phonograph. But there’s an eeriness in songs like “Rosemary,” a haunted quality in lines like “When there’s a witch that is on your back / Makes you feel like the night will attack.”
Ferrell’s songs are among the most popular on Gems. “Rosemary” has more than 130,000 views and its follow-up, “In Dreams,” is over 170,000. After years of busking, Ferrell is thinking about change. She’s back in Nashville to make new videos with Simpkins because, “It feels like it’s the only way I’m going to get noticed,” Ferrell says. “It’s definitely a fine line. I like street performing because it’s easy for me. I’ve been doing it for so long it’s easy for me to go out and make a little bit of money.” On the other hand, even with a growing audience and a platform like Gems, there’s still an awkward period of adjustment. “I feel like I actually need to make a music [web] page,” she says, “so people will stop adding me on Facebook.”
Anthony Simpkins, Benjamin and Ashley Tod, and Sierra Ferrell all intersect not only with each other through Gems, but also with some of the larger, defining categories of contemporary American life. None of them came from money and they have found themselves trapped or fleeing the opioid crisis or the drug war. They also share a taste for older and what they see as more authentic forms of expression. They’re certainly millennials; they might even fit a broader definition of “hipsters.” But to realize that such often-dismissive labels might be applied to these people is a useful lesson in how little the labels mean.
“I had to learn everything, man,” Simpkins says. “I didn’t go to college. I had to learn everything from business to technical aspects to running the social world. That all took a while to get used to.” In the summer of 2016 he started a video production company with his partner Tim Duggan and turned what he’d learned shooting videos for Gems into a way of supporting himself.
“I had to learn how to make a living doing it at the same time,” Simpkins says. Last year he finally monetized some of the videos on Gems. Now he’s in the process of working out with friends and collaborators how to fairly split up profits for something none of them had foreseen as a money-making endeavor.
“It’s more of a headache now — stakes are high because there’s money involved. I’m sure Alan Lomax had the same problem,” Simpkins says with a laugh. “I’m gonna be doing this for the rest of my life whether I like it or not so I have to figure that out.”