During 2013, the women of country music were the ones to watch, cutting the most challenging and heartfelt songs, making bold statements in a sea of sameness. This year, Sturgill Simpson, a native of coal country in eastern Kentucky, is drawing attention from every direction with his sophomore record, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, released on his own High Top Mountain label. Critics of all stripes praise him as an Outlaw reborn, and variety show hosts from Jools Holland to Garrison Keillor want him as a guest, but Simpson is most concerned with how his fans respond.
“The last year, every show all I heard from the fans is ‘Man, I don’t even really like country music, but I love what you guys are doing.’ To me, nothing tells me that we’re achieving our goal more than hearing somebody say that,” he says, calling in during a breather between moving into a new home in Nashville and leaving for a European tour. “There’s a lot of people out there who hate country, especially younger people, because they’ve never actually heard what I and many people call country.”
You might chalk that up to mainstream country music focusing for the last three decades on a strategy adapted from pop – crafting statements that differentiate the artist without asking the audience to think too much – but Simpson isn’t interested in tearing down the Music Row machine, quick to point out he has nothing against mainstream artists’ success.
“I don’t listen to it, I don’t know anything about it, but I do know that they didn’t invent bad music, and they certainly didn’t invent the demographic that goes out and buys fifty million copies of it,” he says. “The giant crews that go on those tours, all those people have families at home that they have to feed, too. There’s so many branches and arms of this industry that people just don’t take into consideration.”
Metamodern Sounds has a late-’70s country flavor, built around a small, versatile band and Simpson’s resonant, hackle-raising baritone. The songs, some gritty, some tender, touch on “the struggle of life,” as Simpson muses all good songs must. What sets the album apart is how he takes full advantage of his independence to start conversations about abstract topics like the nature of consciousness in a very concrete, relatable way.
The metaphysical discussion in opening cut “Turtles All The Way Down” comes quickly and naturally back down to earth. Reacting solely to the drug references in the refrain – “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT/ They all change the way I see” – obscures the message in the last half: “But love’s the only thing/ That changed my life.”
Simpson’s own profound psychedelic experiences partly inspired the song; he’s done his homework on the subject, including reaching out to Dr. Rick Strassman, who conducted controlled clinical trials with the powerful hallucinogen DMT. Even more powerful for Simpson was finding unconditional love in his relationship with his wife at the end of a long spiral of negativity and substance abuse.
“I found real, honest, pure, unconditional understanding, somebody that supports you and believes in you when you don’t – that’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced. It really forced me to adhere to a different life goal,” he says. “I feel like for whatever reason, I’ve been given the ability to make music. Using it for anything other than trying to connect to people that I would probably never know otherwise and make them happy would be a complete and total disrespect of whatever or whoever it is that gives us these things.”
In the last two years, Simpson focused on writing, singing, and gelling with his band, blending his Martin into the rhythm section with rock-solid drummer Miles Miller and bassist Kevin Black. Young Estonian national Laur “Li’l Joe” Joamets, a “card-carrying bad motherfucker [who] I hope gets all the attention and accolades he deserves,” takes over on lead guitar. He sears holes in the tape with Bakersfield licks on knife-edged honky tonk cut “Life Of Sin,” floats like a steel-string butterfly through the gospel-tinged Buddhist reflection “Just Let Go,” squeals like a wounded space dragon in “It Ain’t All Flowers,” whose musique concrète nod to electronica recalls Pink Floyd and The Bomb Squad.
Working with Dave Cobb, who also produced last year’s High Top Mountain, the group finished the record, from learning the songs to approving the final mixes, in less than a week. Each track stands alone, but they also work as a unit that easily conveys the ultimate message that Simpson has found at the base of his soul-searching. “[It’s] a bunch of grand psychobabble that consolidates into one very simple, beautiful idea,” he says. “Give yourself to love, don’t sweat the small stuff, and try not to be a dick.”