Listen now on:
When I first heard of Sturgill Simpson, I liked his name. It’s a great Southern name, one that seemed to arise from the pages of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, one that seemed to come from a place where people identified themselves in terms of counties instead of towns.
When I first heard Simpson’s music, I liked that too. His voice made me think of Waylon Jennings, whom I also like a lot, though I don’t think he liked me. I once met him in an Arizona bar. I asked him if, when he and Johnny Cash were Nashville roommates in the mid ’60s, they borrowed each other’s black clothes. He fixed me with his intense Waylon outlaw-vibe stare, and said, “You askin’ me a damn strange question, son.”
I’ve never met Sturgill Simpson, but I have a hunch he might have a little more truck with strange questions. Though his voice is frequently compared to Jennings’ unpolished, whisper-to-gutbucket baritone and he often writes in the same Nashville/Bakersfield musical realm, Kentucky-native Simpson uses those familiar roots to Trojan horse in themes that would have ol’Waylon scratching his head faster than you can spatchcock a chicken.
For starters, his second album is titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Sure, Ray Charles got away with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, but “meta?” Still, that bit of IQ mindfuckery didn’t prevent Simpson’s superb work from earning a Grammy nomination (along with Rosanne Cash, Keb’ Mo’, John Hiatt and Nickel Creek) in the Best Americana Album slot, though such kudos may not be what he’s after.
“The best compliment I ever get is people coming up to me after shows and saying they hate country music, but they love what we’re doing,” Simpson told the Oxford American in September.
So…what’s he doing? For all his traditional, acoustic guitar-pedal steel-and-twangy-Telecaster touchstones, admitted Pink Floyd fan Simpson’s got his psychedelic side on display, especially in the backmask-heavy “It Ain’t All Flowers.” The country-psych tune trips along to a Sgt. Pepper’s-era McCartney bass line embedded in an evil-lazy Tony Joe White swamp groove. Yeah, get out your headphones, kids.
The album’s opening cut, “Turtles All the Way Down,” invokes Buddha, LSD, the Devil, reptile aliens, and space and time (the liner notes include a thanks to Carl Sagan) and the video is straight from a vintage Bill Graham light show. Plus, Simpson—who is sober, in case you’re wondering—wrote a bridge that Andy Partridge would be proud of.
Simpson’s thinking man’s outlaw lyrical prowess is what really sets him apart from the pack. He’s not afraid to trot out concepts gleaned from his preferred “night time reading” material, metaphysics, science, Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu cosmology.
“Through all these Earthly trials of sorrow/ Through all these days of doubt and sin /Through all these eternal nights with no tomorrow /Gotta stay on the straight and narrow and find a little light within,” sings Simpson on “A Little Light Within,” that Zen-basted statement set to the raw stomp of a backwoods revival group.
Or consider the first line of “Just Let Go”: “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego,” something previous generations of country outlaws did ritually with pills and booze but didn’t exactly sing about.
It all adds up to a tour de force release from an essential artist who is bringing something new to three chords and the whine of a lonesome steel.
Says Simpson: “I think, if it’s going to survive and progress and maintain any type of relevance in the future, you have to reach people that don’t even know what country music really is.”