Aaron Paul Zimmer might be most well known for his work with Savannah bluegrass outfit City Hotel, but the singer/songwriter has spent the last year branching out with his debut solo album.
“Saints and Heretics,” which was technically released in March during Savannah Stopover Music Festival, is the culmination of 10 years of songwriting from Zimmer and marks a departure from the bluegrass he’s become known for locally.
Zimmer began performing and writing while in college at the University of Georgia, drawing on a heavy folk/Americana style that translated into an equitable balance in City Hotel that pulled the band in directions outside of traditional bluegrass, helping to cement the band as something truly original.
Zimmer had long wanted to record a number of his own songs that didn’t fit with City Hotel. One night at The Jinx while Zimmer was performing a cover of Dwight Yoakam’s “Two Doors Down,” the opportunity to do so came knocking. Savannah musician and producer Matt Collett was struck by Zimmer’s version of the song and immediately approached him afterwards to talk about recording the track.
“We had both been there for a while and were both tired and what have you,” Zimmer recalled. “And he said (the song) really struck a chord with him. He must have been down at the time. He said he wanted to record it for a compilation CD of Savannah artists. So we went and recorded that tune and then we decided to go record an original, then two and three. Then we decided to do a whole album.”
Collett (Bear Fight) and partner in crime Collin Motlagh (Bear Fight, The Train Wrecks), who own and operate The Garage, produced all of Zimmer’s album and formed the rhythm section for the album and the live incarnation. Beyond playing on the album, the two producers, known as Aphelion, helped shape Zimmer’s raw songs into a finished product.
“A lot of this stuff was drastically different when I brought it in,” Zimmer said. “Which usually happens with City Hotel organically. But this was a very deliberate project. I think this is the best work I’ve done just because it had such a deliberate, professional feel to it.
“We were all on the same page — have similar taste in music,” he continued. “They’re great because they’ve been doing it for so long, they have a sophisticated palette in terms of what they listen to — a wide array of artists they appreciate. I think it’s my most mature songwriting to date, for sure. Sometimes, you go in and record something and a year later you listen to it and it’s like meh. This one is still sitting well with me, for sure. I am pretty happy with the final product.”
The album, according to Zimmer, acts an anthology of his songwriting over the last decade with simple folk songs, ’90s alternative rock jammers, honky tonk swings and a country cover, “Saints and Heretics” spans wide of array of styles.
“There isn’t any unifying thread,” Zimmer explained. “It’s just a bunch of tunes, an anthology of mine.”
A Georgia native, Zimmer moved to Savannah around eight years ago. A seventh-grade English teacher by day, Zimmer began hitting open mics a year after moving here. He met mandolin player Cory Chambers one night at an open mic at Tantra Lounge and would later form City Hotel.
“I definitely did not grow up playing bluegrass,” Zimmer said. “It was something I learned from those guys (City Hotel). I just really wanted to be in a band again. I wanted to play music again.
“That’s when I started appreciating and playing bluegrass. It was kind of I needed a band. Of course, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s helped me in many different ways. I’ve learned a lot, a lot, about music from these guys.”
Zimmer tapped a host of Savannah’s best players to appear on the new album. Anders Thomsen (Damon and the Sh!tkickers, Anders Thomsen Trio), Jared Hall (Velvet Caravan), Igor Fiksman (Damon and the Sh!tkickers), Stu Harmening (The Train Wrecks) and Evan Rose (Lyn Avenue) all show up on tracks.
“I’ve played live shows with all of these people in different venues, different shows, but it was cool to have it be a truly Savannah record with a bunch of my favorite musicians on it,” Zimmer said. “It was an honor to play and record with those people.”
Although the album is out, Zimmer will have a special release show on May 17 with Brother Hawk at The Jinx.