Jill Simmons—Brown Eyed Women

Photograph by Bolt of Sunshine Photography

My parents like to say I was singing before I was talking, which I can imagine. I never had any lessons, very little instruction and no formal training. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I do thank God for a gift I don’t have a lot of other explanation for. From the time I was able to make sounds I was singing and I’ve done everything from children’s pop groups and singing in church to choirs and musicals in high school and college. I sang in a folk band. Sang in a blues band. Sang jazz as part of a duos or trio. Did the hideous wedding singer thing and —

Dennis: Oh, I want to give you—

Jill:—it was soul sucking—

Dennis: Yes, I want to give you a hug out of sympathy.

Jill: I was in another all-female group called Pittsburgh Women of the Blues, which was a blast; six amazing Pittsburgh blues singers who focused on harmonies. We had such a good time and I totally enjoyed that. I was in all kinds of bands before I joined theCAUSE and, to be frank, a lot of times I was background music in my adult life as a musician.

When I joined theCAUSE in 2008 in Pittsburgh, I knew one Grateful Dead song, “Bertha,” because Los Lobos covered it. We do more than just the Dead, but we’re pretty Deadcentric. We do some Phish, Tedeschi Trucks, The Beatles, and other jam band stuff. I sing backups – we have another male lead singer – and lead on a mix of Bobby and Jerry songs. I have a few signature songs now like “Blow Away” and “Sugaree.” And I love to do Pigpen because it brings out my blues roots.

I will never forget the first time I played with theCAUSE. It was at Moondog’s, my ‘home base’ club where I played a lot over the years. Before theCAUSE even started playing that night, there were people standing right in front of the stage. I was like, what are they doing? It was so weird to me. I’d never been to a Grateful Dead concert—I had no clue about the world of Deadheads.

That first gig with theCAUSE, I was blown away. Just totally blown away. First of all, I couldn’t believe all the men dancing by themselves and everybody singing the songs. And the most important impression was that people were there for the show. They weren’t there to sit at the bar and have a couple of beers. They weren’t there to have deep conversations with their friends. They were there for the music. I’ve been to a lot of shows and performed a lot of shows where people were into the music, but not like every person in the club. You know? Not every single person. It just gave me chills and, I thought, wow, joining this band was a good idea. I can honestly say that it changed my life.

Brown eyed women
Brown Eyed Women

Of course before our first show, I realized I’d have to learn about 100 new songs. It became my second job, and I made some non-Deadhead mistakes along the way, like learning the wrong version of a song. I think it was “Sitting on Top of the World.” The Dead did not do the slow version—at all. It blew my mind that I could go to a specific show to learn a specific version of a song. Archive.org became my constant companion. It was a lot of work for someone who had zero Grateful Dead knowledge! I remember – I will be completely honest – somehow or another I never wrote down the last verse of “Franklin’s Tower;” it never registered with me. So it was probably my third or fourth gig with these guys, and I had a total panic attack on stage, because Eric is looking at me, waiting for me to sing again, and I didn’t realize there was another verse!

People ask me what my favorite Grateful Dead song is. SUCH a hard question to answer (to listen to or sing??). At the top of my list is “Other One.” I used to not understand the jams when I first joined theCAUSE, but now I get it. I can get so distracted listening to the band play “The Other One” that I forget to sing. It’s such a powerful, amazing song, and I get lost in the jam, then I remember I’ve got to get up there and sing. So many Dead songs have beautiful melodies and great bass lines. As a singer, I should be better at listening and iterating the words, but I’m much more of a groove kind of person.

Dennis: That works for the Grateful Dead.

Jill: Yeah. I love the groove and the feel. I’ve been in the band for over ten years and now and I am all in—I’m on the bus. And I understand and really hear what the words are. Of course, there are some that really hit me like “Eyes of the World” and “Bird Song.” I love singing those songs.

Dennis: So tell the story of how you fell in with Brown Eyed Women.

Jill: Okay. Well, one of the things that is fascinating to me is the plethora of Grateful Dead cover bands all over the country. Wow. I was in Florida for vacation shortly after I joined theCAUSE and looking through the live music offerings in the area. I saw this band called Crazy Fingers, and I was like, well, I have to go see a band called Crazy Fingers. I got to sit in with this fantastic band, and then got invited to their gig three days later at a Boston’s on the Beach in Del Ray. The Dead community is just, it’s so remarkable. People are so kind and welcoming and, you know, you walk into a room full of Deadheads and you feel like you walked into a room full of friends. And so of course people are like, hey, who are you? Where are you from? I sat in that night like I’ve been playing with these guys for years. They are super talented – it was electric. I made a lot of friends that night including Turtle—doesn’t every Deadhead community have a guy named Turtle?—who is like the Welcome Wagon of the South Florida Deadheads. We became friends and stayed in touch along with Pete Lavezzoli, the drummer for Crazy Fingers (and JGB, I learned later). 

Anytime I would go to Florida I would sit in with Crazy Fingers. Then I got connected with a new band forming in South Florida called Unlimited Devotion who invited me to sing with them as often as I could. Who doesn’t want to go to Florida when you live in Pittsburgh in the middle of the winter? They’re a stellar group of players, and I started doing shows with them as often as I could, and that’s how I met Joni.

Joni Bottari was in Unlimited Devotion at that time – she is an immensely talented guitar player. She and I, of course, kept in touch over the years. Joni was talking to Denise Parent, the drummer for the Deadbeats in Woodstock, NY, about an idea Denise had – to form an all-female Grateful Dead band. They started talking about who they knew in the community – who has the chops to be in a band with them. What female players? They knew a bass player named Dana in New Jersey. A keyboard player—Caroline—from Massachusetts. And they need a singer. Now, Denise is a singer. She’s really great, but they both agreed that they needed a lead singer, someone out front; and so Joni says, something along the lines of like, well, have I got a fucking singer for you. She’ll knock your socks off or something flattering like that. So Joni called me and told me about the band…and asked, “What do you think?” And I was like, of course, count me in.

It’s really special. All the players are so talented, and we sounded amazing right from the start. I mean, it doesn’t come without its challenges, of course…you know, geography and just like every other band in the history of the world, personalities. But I’m used to playing with women, making music with women, being creative and making sure that everybody has their say and their space and feels like they’re contributing, and I think we’re on to something big – and really special. We’re all just devastated that coronavirus came and knocked us out of the park for 2019 because we were just hitting our stride. We did a good tour in February and it was really cooking, so we’re really excited to get back at it. We can’t wait to get back out there in 2021. And to play Skull and Roses? I’m thrilled about that.

Pandemic Update

I didn’t really come to grips with the pandemic until maybe June, when I was actually going to go online to try online dating. Which was a pretty crazy idea during this pandemic. Right? In the course of that, I met a guy who will not be named who worked in the music industry and had owned a club and had some connections with Live Nation. And he said to me that he’d talked to his friends in the business. I guess there was a call of industry execs and they said, probably no more live music until 2021. I was incredulous. I couldn’t really believe it. At first I thought that can’t be right, and then it hit me, we’re in it for the long haul. This is no joke.

It was very shocking. It never really settled in. It’s not like, okay, don’t think about your normal life from now until whenever… Anyway, the pandemic drastically affected my daily life. I work for a university and my job is to travel to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida and raise money for the university. So my last trip for the university was actually, thankfully, in New York, and I was able to go see the (Allman) Brothers Reunion show, their 50th anniversary show with Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes at Madison Square Garden the week the pandemic hit. And, you know, that basically shut my life down. So no travel. Plus, I’m a very social person. You know, I’m definitely a people person. So if I’m not on the road meeting alumni, I’m in my office meeting with coworkers and, you know, worrying about what’s going on with the university. So I went from being around people to being by myself and it was a shock to the system. It was not a good thing for me, it was hard.

And then, one month into the pandemic, at the end of March, I did a Facebook live show and then slipped and fell down my stairs and fractured two vertebrae in my back and was basically out of commission and in hideous pain by myself. The only person that could help me was my boyfriend at the time, and  within a month, he said he couldn’t handle dealing with his own life and his responsibilities for me and so he dumped me.

But here’s the silver lining, I have a dear wonderful Dead Head friend who lives in Miami and she said come and stay with me. So I suffered through April being laid up and with a fractured back, in pain, and being dumped, and I spent the month of May healing emotionally and physically with my dear Deadhead friend, Barbara, in Miami, which was a Godsend.

By the time I got back to Pittsburgh we could go outside and my band here started doing outdoor shows, sociallydistanced, of course, and that was really wonderful. And I had made some other really good friends. I’d gone to the Dark Star Orchestra Jam in the Sand in January, before the pandemic hit, and met some wonderful people from Ohio and they invited us to go on vacation with them. So things got much, much better over the summer.

Plus, my friend Barbara, my guardian angel in Miami, Barbara, introduced me to a group of people who had started getting together on Saturday nights to watch Dead & Company live streams, replays of their shows on Zoom; and she said you should join us. It’s really fun: we all watch the show together and then chat during the set break and dance; and at first I was like this is very weird. But I had gotten to know these people, which was terrific; but then they decided to use some of the connections of the people within the group to invite artists to do private Zoom concerts just for us. And that included Jackie Greene and Bill and Jill Nershi (from String Cheese), Nicki Bluhm and Graham Nash and Anders Osborne…

So it’s been a blast. And since things have started to open up, I’ve gotten to meet some of these people in person and it’s like I’ve made a whole—being isolated, living alone by myself in the house in Pittsburgh, and now I have this whole new group of friends that I made during quarantine who all have the love of live music and kindness and, you know, generosity; and we’re all making plans to meet up this summer at Dead & Company or various shows from now until the end of the year, so —there are so many things to be grateful for, but that’s high on my list of things to be grateful for.

And also I just (June, 2021) got back from our first Brown Eyed Women gigs post-pandemic, and that was wonderful. It was so great to see them, to, you know, make music together, to hang out together and to realize this special thing we have going on, and to realize that we have a bunch more tours lined up for this year and things into next year, so it’s pretty exciting. And people really received it well. I feel like we’re just getting ready to kind of almost relaunch this band. It’s pretty special.

And it’s going to get better. It already has. You know, I have got my health and I still have a job. I still have two bands. You know, my family is healthy and my friends are healthy and safe. More people have a lot to be grateful for and I definitely have a ton to be grateful for and just getting home literally, I just got home today from the Brown Eyed Women tour and I’m already confident that we’re going to refine the songs that we did and add some new songs and get ready for Atlanta and the southern tour, so August is going to be here before we know it and I’m looking forward to it.