Sturgill Simpson: Country Maverick Bucks Tradition

Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson

When Sturgill Simpson released Metamodern Sounds of Country Music in 2014, no one could have predicted the near-sanctimonious reaction he would ignite among music lovers — especially old-school country fans.

They said the same shit about Steve Earle 20 years ago

The headline, if not the subtext, was that the Kentucky-native was country music’s new savior, delivering something more substantial than what commercial country music was offering. Even the New York Times proclaimed him a “genuine alternative to alt country.”

While all of the hype is in fact true, Simpson was having none of it. Not. One. Bit. And once the ball started rolling, it was difficult to stop. But the kid from southeast Kentucky still rejected the notion, telling the U.K.’s The Guardian, “There’ll be another one along next year. They said the same shit about Steve Earle 20 years ago.”

Twang, Pain, and Life

Simpson was born in a small Kentucky town; his mother worked as a secretary and his father as an undercover police officer, a profession that eventually led the family to relocate to the Lexington area.

After high school — and a few scrapes with the law — Simpson joined the Navy. He’s equated that experience to prison a number of times, and his three-year stint certainly has colored many of his songs. As did his time with the railroad. Ditto for the short time he spent writing songs for other singers when he first moved to Nashville. All of these experiences added to the salty outlook that permeates much of the Simpson’s work and lends heft to such sublime songs as “Life of Sin” or “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean.”

A noisier effort with far less twang, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is full of regrets (actual and imagined) and acrid observations on life and the world

Not to slight his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, but it was 2014’s Metamodern that put Simpson on the map — and sometimes those roads led to places he didn’t want to be. The idea of being country’s savior still chafes the singer, and makes up a large part of the conversations that go on between Simpson and his interviewers. Perhaps, by using a Nirvana cover as the single to introduce his new album, Simpson was making a somewhat snide, yet overt attempt, to knock that crown off of his head.

While Simpson’s choice of covers is decidedly un-country (he covered “The Promise” by ’80s synth pop group When in Rome on Metamodern), under his hand “In Bloom” begins as a sad, stripped-down version of the bombastic ’90s grunge hit and slowly moves from parched, sepia tones to full-on technicolor with wistful strings and purposeful horns. The song may have been an unlikely choice, but it stands as a good indication of the overall sound Simpson was aiming for on the album.

I’m just gonna write a record for my kid and if people hate it, it doesn’t matter

A noisier effort with far less twang, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is full of regrets (actual and imagined) and acrid observations on life and the world, but these are not simply “life got me down” ruminations. Rather, many of the songs on a Sailor’s Guide are wizened tales meant to warn others of life-altering mistakes. Simpson, a father for the first time, has made an album that quite literally, is a guide for his son. On “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” he urges “Make sure you give a little/Before you go to the great unknown in the sky.”

But it’s “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” which really reflects the new chapter in Simpson’s life. “Hello my son,” he sings over a beautiful, music box-like piano lullaby adorned with strings, before The Dap-Kings‘ horn-fueled strut (they play on five songs on the album) kicks in with the lyrics, “And if sometimes daddy has to go away/Please don’t think it means I don’t love you/Oh, how I wish I could be there everyday/’Cause when I’m gone it makes me so sad and blue.”

Another change this time around, is the singer’s decision to produce himself rather than use Dave Cobb, who, aside from being Nashville’s current it guy, produced his first two albums.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is an extremely personal piece for work for Simpson, one which the singer couldn’t be impartial about. It was too much from the heart, stories handed down from dad to son. “At a certain point, you can’t be open to other people’s ideas and input,” he said.

And ultimately, this one-on-one connection is what buoys this endearing, albeit ragged and rough, album.

“I’m just gonna write a record for my kid,” he said, “and if people hate it, it doesn’t matter.”