Octave Records’ latest release is Levelland by country-folk duo Bonnie and Taylor Sims. It’s a contemplative and romantic set of songs by the two, who have been playing and recording together for more than 15 years – but haven’t recorded a duo album until now. Bonnie and Taylor have earned numerous accolades, including 2020’s internationally-charting Number One single, “I See Red,” as well as top honors in the RockyGrass and Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and other awards.
Levelland, named after the “underwhelming” (as they put it) town in Texas where they first met, features the lead and harmony vocals of Bonnie and Taylor, with Bonnie playing mandolin, Taylor adeptly picking the acoustic guitar, and Brad Morse accompanying them on upright bass. The sound is open, clear and intimate, ideal for a label like Octave Records that presents the artistry of its performers in the finest-possible audiophile-quality sound.
The album was recorded at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado using Octave Records’ Pure DSD process and the Sonoma multi-track DSD recording system. It was recorded, mastered and mixed by Gus Skinas. A number of vintage and other instruments were used, including a 1946 Martin D-18, 1957 Martin OOO-18, 1910 upright bass, and a 2015 Newsom F5 mandolin.
Levelland is available as a limited-edition release of 1,000 hybrid SACD discs with the master DSD layer and a CD layer. In addition, the album can be purchased as a download bundle including DSD64, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM. Levelland was produced by Bonnie and Taylor Sims and Jessica Carson was the executive producer.
Levelland presents Bonnie and Taylor’s singing with a warm, rich purity, complemented by the stunning clarity of the acoustic instruments. The sound is intimate and inviting, presented without studio trickery or embellishment. The nuances and dynamics of Bonnie and Taylor’s singing and playing is conveyed up-close-and-personal, from their heartfelt harmony vocals of the title track and “Let It Play,” to the upbeat drive and dexterous fingerpicking of “Side By Side.” Bonnie’s impassioned, high-register vocals take “Every Little Bit” to a powerful emotional peak, and it’s easy to hear why the duo’s cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” has been a long-time crowd favorite and staple of their repertoire for many years.
We interviewed Taylor Sims about the making of Levelland.
Frank Doris: In the liner notes you said that Levelland was named after a nowhere town.
Taylor Sims: It’s a town out in west Texas where Bonnie and I met. That’s the most significant [part about] it! That’s where our musical journey started, and why we called the album that.
FD: When did you first start performing with her and realize, wow, this is really happening.
TS: About 2004 or 2005 while in college. We [were in] a pretty rich community of bluegrass, folk and country musicians. We all started jamming together because Levelland is a dry town and it limited our options for things to do. So, we would just sit around and pick, most every day and every night. [Bonnie and I] became musically connected before we became romantically and existentially connected.
FD: A lot of people will start playing guitar when they’re younger (Taylor began when he was 16), and for some, 16 would be kind of late.
TS: I was always into music. My dad was a big country music fan and we always had really good music playing around the house; Western swing, old country and, singer/songwriter stuff. One day when I was 16, I was in a pawn shop in Amarillo, Texas and saw a guitar hanging on a wall, and it hit me. I just asked myself, why had I not learned to play guitar yet?
FD: You’ve now been doing this for a long time, and had success. How did you manage to hook up with Octave Records?
TS: Bonnie and I went to college with [producer] Jess Carson, but we didn’t interact that much back then. Fast forward to the last seven or eight years and she had moved [back to our area] and started playing gigs, and we randomly crossed paths, then became close friends. Bonnie and I had signed with Columbia Records and in 2020 [the song] “I See Red” went viral, but all of our gigs were cancelled. So, we had a little bit of time and Jess asked us if we’d ever consider doing a record for Octave. It didn’t interfere with our deal with Columbia, so we decided to do it. Bonnie and I had had a lot of requests to do a duo record.
FD: Who writes the songs, and how do you write them?
TS: It’s a combination of the two of us. I pore over songs for sometimes years, while Bonnie’s much quicker. She can sit down and write a song in a matter of a day or a few hours where I let the “editor” into my process, more often than I should!
FD: Why did you decide to cover Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You?”
TS: Bonnie and I started singing [that] together really early on. One of the reasons we fell in love was our mutual love for Townes Van Zandt. And, you know, he’s a Texas boy! Whenever we’ve tried to [remove] it from the set list, people always request it.
In terms of other influences, we both love Texas songwriters, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, and we’re both big Dylan heads. Bonnie’s really big into musical theater and she introduced me to that whole world. Most recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Dave Alvin. I’ve always loved his style, [combining] American tradition and blues roots, with that awesome guitar tone cranked up to 10.
FD: How else have you been dealing with COVID world?
TS: It’s been a monumental shift, you know, no doubt about it. We had all of our gigs canceled in March 2020. And as things kind of started to calm down a little bit we found ourselves really missing playing live. We went from playing four or five times a week for years and touring a lot and doing lots of different projects, to nothing. We ended up playing with just a couple of people and making music just for ourselves, sitting around in the living room. But it was very refreshing, creatively refreshing, to have a break, think about what we were gonna do next and be more intentional with it.
The first time we got back on stage [this year], it was just that thing of like, oh man, I really missed this. We played some great festivals this last summer and it was so good cause people were so hungry to hear live music again.