Photos by Jim Graham. Makeup by Jackie Scully, Stylist Skylar Volz.
Now almost 800 miles from Nashville, Carly Simmons still aims to make her mark on country music.
Credit Carly Simmons’ mom for knowing raw talent when she heard it, singing along to the radio in the back seat of the family car. Patty Pruitt couldn’t believe what she was hearing. But when she asked her daughter to sing for the family, stage fright took over. “I went quiet for years,” Simmons recalls with a laugh.
Simmons found her voice in sixth grade, working up the courage to perform “I’m Goin’ Down” by Mary J. Blige in a school talent show. Her dad was moved to tears. She tried the choir at Wilmington’s Tatnall School, but dropped out to pursue sports instead. Upon graduation from Tatnall in 2010, she accepted a full track-and-field scholarship from the University of Delaware. At a college party, she performed the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried,” and she had a brief stint in a collegiate a cappella group. But it simply wasn’t her time.
Soon after transferring to James Madison University in Virginia, Simmons got a message from Sean Verchick, a musician she’d worked with six years prior in the studio of his parents’ home. He’d since made the move to Los Angeles and encouraged Simmons to visit.
Not completely in love with the direction her life was taking, she obliged—and the two began writing together. With the $5,000 she saved from waitressing at BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville, Delaware, Simmons left school and made the trip across the country in 2016. Once in L.A., she began to grow her network in the music industry. She collaborated with a producer named Gazzo on a cover of MGMT’s “Kids,” which sparked the interest of Grammy-winning Dutch DJ and producer Tiësto, who wanted the track on his album. “At this point, I’ve only been in L.A. for three months, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s easy. I’m getting my big break,’” Simmons says.
Alas, MGMT wouldn’t sign off on the track’s inclusion on Tiësto’s album. But Verchick wasn’t ready to give up on Simmons, introducing her to Josiah Rosen, cofounder of the popular band Augustana, who’d since gone on to become a successful songwriter, working with the likes of Rachel Platten and Colbie Caillat. The two clicked instantly. “When I met Carly, I thought she carried a lot of charisma,” Rosen says. “I loved her voice and saw a place for her in the country music world that was wide open.”
There was just one problem: Simmons didn’t want to be a country singer. She agreed to one session, which netted the song “Whiskey Kisses.” That was all it took. “I fell in love with country songwriting,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rosen and Verchick were working on their own country group, Sour Blossom, which they pitched to Black River Entertainment, home to country star Kelsea Ballerini. The Nashville label was initially hesitant, until Rosen threw “Whiskey Kisses” into the mix. Now they were interested, but only if the group included Simmons. She reluctantly obliged, sharing lead vocal duties with Verchick.
With sponsorship from Taylor Guitars, Sour Blossom performed at the Hotel Cafe, No Vacancy and other well-known L.A. venues. They attracted an investor and made the trip to Nashville to make an album at Sound Stage Studios. “We recorded in rooms Morgan Wallen and Kacey Musgraves had played in,” Simmons says.
A lover of all things vintage, Simmons frequents Malena’s Vintage Boutique in West Chester and various Goodwill locations. “Fast fashion is killing our planet and making us all the same,” she says. “We need to get back to a place where it’s about self-expression and a work of art.”
All seemed well. But behind closed doors, all wasn’t well. Locked in a power struggle, Simmons and Verchick were constantly at odds. Eventually, Simmons was out of Sour Blossom and contemplating her next move. Enter Lauren Jones, a young singer/songwriter who’s now a third of the rising girl group Trousdale. “I remember just sobbing at one of her songs,” Simmons says. “We ended up writing together and becoming really good friends. I learned so much about writing from her.”
The feeling was mutual. “I’m always amazed at how effortless it is for Carly to come up with incredible song titles and ideas,” says Jones. “Every writing session I had with her started with a clever idea and ended in an afternoon of love, laughter and something true.”
In 2019, Simmons moved from the West Coast to Nashville. “I met so many people and wrote so many songs there,” she says. “No matter how much time has passed, people in the country world authentically care about each other and invest in friendships. It’s more personal, and I really respect that.”
Simmons was at home in the Brandywine Valley for a visit when COVID-19 hit, compelling her to stick around. She put out a song called “Man Upstairs,” which made it to Apple’s Discover page and was included on its country playlist. “It got a bunch of streams, and it was so exciting,” Simmons says.
Simmons didn’t want to be a country singer, but she agreed to one session, which netted the song “Whiskey Kisses.” That was all it took. “I fell in love with country songwriting,” she says.
Back home, she reconnected with fellow Tatnall School alum David Sanford. Now engaged, they hope to move into their new Chadds Ford home in early 2024, followed by a wedding next summer. “I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for him,” Simmons says. “He comes to all the shows. He coordinates and sells my merch for me. He’s incredibly supportive.”
At the Vicmead Hunt Club in Wilmington, where her fiancé is a member, she met Kennett Square-based guitarist Gordon Lippincott, who became a major player in assembling her current band. “I was blown away that she had a whole catalog of professionally recorded material,” says Lippincott. “She’s focused and driven, and she has a clear vision for how she wants each song to sound.”
Sanford’s brother-in-law Eli Born has also been an invaluable ally. The cinematographer has worked on music videos for Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and others. His skilled hand is behind the clip for Simmons’ “Harley T-Shirt” single, which you can see on YouTube.
A lover of all things vintage, Simmons frequents Malena’s Vintage Boutique in West Chester and various Goodwill locations. “When I find something unique and put together a cool outfit, I feel like that’s art,” she says. “Fast fashion is killing our planet and making us all the same. We need to get back to a place where it’s about self-expression and a work of art.”
Though leaving Nashville may not have been ideal for her career, Simmons is embracing her ties to this region. Brandywine Creek figures prominently in her “Stupid & Beautiful” video, and she’s performed at Kennett Square’s Creamery, the Queen in Wilmington and other local venues. “We’re starting to get some headway. It’s made everything so much better to start getting more live experience,” Simmons says. “Every show I get more confident, and whiskey is a nice helper for me.”
Simmons hasn’t ruled out performing in Nashville sometime soon. She’s working on a debut album, and she hopes to grow her fanbase before releasing it. “I don’t want to put the past five to six years’ worth of work out for it to get to nobody’s ears,” she says. “I want to have the proper team behind me when I do that.”
And though she has a deep appreciation for country music, she isn’t tied to any one style. Authenticity is huge. “I really believe in not putting myself in a box,” she says. “My songs come from the heart. They’re all truthful, real stories. If it feels authentic, that’s all I care about.”
Follow Carly Simmons on Instagram @carlysimmonsmusic.