Sturgill Simpson isn’t making country music for car commercials and he definitely isn’t writing songs about the sexual appeal of his tractor. Often compared with artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson’s music evokes country’s golden days but doesn’t sound played out. He exists independently of the Nashville country elite: He spent the night of the 2017 CMAs busking for the American Civil Liberties Union, Grammy in his guitar case, joking that he wasn’t allowed into the ceremony and taking questions from passersby because “fascism sucks.” He’s a maverick with a thunderous voice that is versatile enough to cover both Nirvana and When In Rome, and sounds just as home on tender ballads as it does on free-wheeling rock-and-roll cuts. Listening to his music is like hearing an old folk-hero spin tall tales that reverberate with time-honored wisdom—it’s bold and heartfelt, and pulls the listener into the worlds Sturgill Simpson creates.
The 40-year old, Nashville-via-Kentucky artist started releasing solo recordings in 2013, but he didn’t garner critical attention until the 2014 release of “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.” The album is a far cry from the pop-country of artists like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, and echoes back to the genre’s apex in the 1970s: Nick Murray of Rolling Stone describes it as “what Waylon [Jennings] would have sounded like if he had taken Willie [Nelson]’s drugs.” Album opener “Turtles All The Way Down” references Buddhism, psychedelia and “reptile aliens made of light.” The rest of ‘Metamodern’ follows from there, leaving the listener with an album that is sad and sardonic, yet simultaneously beautiful.
‘Metamodern’ was widely praised for being an excellent country record that was equally classic and contemporary, but two years after its release, Simpson’s life was in a different place and he was ready to make something that reflected his experience.
He had his first son in 2014 and wanted to make an album that showcased his soul and rock influences. The hallucinogenic lyrics on ‘Metamodern’ were a little dated—Simpson had been (more or less) sober for years. So, instead of creating “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, Part 2,” in 2016 Sturgill Simpson released the concept album “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”—a song cycle dedicated to his two-year-old son and inspired by a letter written from his grandfather to his own wife and son during World War II that uses the experiences of a sailor at sea to reflect the ebb and flow of life.
“Guide” offers a rich sonic palate that delves into soul and rock, while still keeping the classic country authenticity that contributed to the critical success of “Metamodern Sounds.” The opening track, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” starts off with Simpson crooning over sweet strings before the track introduces lively horns (performed by funk/soul revivalists the Dap Kings) and an energized Simpson singing to his son that “If sometimes daddy has to go away/ Please don’t think it means I don’t love you.”
“Guide” is filled with similar letters from father to son: “Keep It Between the Lines” tells the younger Simpson “And just stay in school/ Stay off the drugs/ And keep between the lines.” “All Around You” is the spiritual climax of the album, where Simpson gives a sacred meditation on love (“And long after I'm gone/ I'll still be around/ Cause our bond is eternal/ And so is love”).
Possessing a strong individual identity is a central theme on “Guide.” For instance, on the acrid “Call to Arms,” Simpson shouts “Well son I hope you don’t grow up/ Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man.” Throughout the album, Simpson calls out a monolithic military (“Call to Arms;” “Sea Stories”) and encourages passionate living (“Brace for Impact (Live A Little);” “All Around You”). Across all these themes, Simpson’s songwriting is steeped with his down-to-earth candor.
Simpson’s forthrightness never devolves into crassness: “Guide” is heartfelt and honest from front to back. The near-matchless songcraft on the album once more received mass critical praise for Simpson, and even snagged a nomination for Album of the Year at the 59th Grammy Awards in 2017. “Guide” would also win the Grammy Award for Best Country Album. Is Sturgill Simpson an alt-country superstar? Maybe he is, but it’s a title he deserves, and something tells me that he won’t let it get to his head.
See Sturgill Simpson perform at Roots N Blues N BBQ on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 9:15 on the MO Lottery Stage, following Margo Price.
Edited by Siena DeBolt | firstname.lastname@example.org