Sturgill Simpson: Sea Changes

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Photos by Reto Sterchi

Sturgill Simpson sits at a kitchen table in North Nashville, an hour or so before dinnertime. Less than two miles away, the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway are flicking on their neon signs and gearing up for another evening of wild, Jägerbombed partying, fueled by the tourists who head downtown every night in search of drink specials and cover bands. Things are more relaxed in the kitchen, though, where Simpson is busy rattling off a long list of artists who inspired his newest album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.

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“I love Astral Weeks by Van Morrison,” he says. “And Bowie, too. Nirvana. Sly and the Family Stone. Bill Withers. Marvin Gaye. Pink Floyd. George Harrison. Curtis Mayfield. T Rex. Walt Disney. Those old-school Disney movies with the symphonies and strings are great! I’ve been watching a lot of that stuff over the past year with the kid.”

The kid. Of all the influences on A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson’s two year-old son is perhaps the most prominent. He was born during the summer of 2014, days after the release of his dad’s career-breaking album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. For a short time, the two were inseparable. Then, as Simpson puts it, “Things happened, and I literally spent the next 18 months touring, so I was gone for a lot of his early childhood. I probably slept in my bed 30 or 40 times that year.”

Simpson hadn’t planned on spending so much time away from home. When Metamodern Sounds In Country Music hit stores in May 2014, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean were the leading men of country music. Once known as a genre built upon twang and tradition, country had grown into something else entirely by the mid-2010s: a big, booming business ruled no longer by Southern belles or country cowboys, but by bros in backwards baseball caps. Simpson, with his booming bark of a voice, reminded people of a much older era, an era when loose cannons like Waylon Jennings could share the charts alongside more polished, PG-rated stars like Charley Pride. This wasn’t the 1970s, though. It was 2014, and a guy like Simpson — a guy who claimed Kurt Cobain, Sly Stone and Marc Bolan as songwriting influences — didn’t seem to stand a chance.

“Things hadn’t ramped up yet,” he says. “My wife was pregnant while we were making that record, and I was freaking out, thinking, ‘How am I gonna support a family and still do this?’ So when we made Metamodern, I literally thought that was the last record I was gonna get to make. In a lot of ways, that’s what allowed me to write about a lot of the things I did, because I really didn’t think anybody would hear it.”

People did hear it, though. Hundreds of thousands of people. Recorded for less than the price of a used car and released independently, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music offered everything that bro-country lacked: drama, danger and plenty of unscripted firepower from a band of road warriors. At the center of the mix was Simpson himself, slashing bluegrass riffs on an acoustic guitar while barking lyrics about God, acid and brotherhood like some honky-tonkin’ hippie. Radio stations wouldn’t touch Metamodern — especially country stations, whose program directors almost seemed scared to claim Simpson as one of their own — but the album still sold more than 150,000 copies, transforming Simpson from an underground songwriter into the reluctant poster boy for a new generation of left-leaning country fans.

A lot can change in two years, and it goes without saying that the circumstances surrounding A Sailor’s Guide To Earth — Simpson’s third record overall, as well as his debut release for Atlantic Records and very first album as anything resembling a “star” (although he’d surely cringe at the term) — are different. People recognize him in Nashville restaurants now. They know his music. They expect things of him. Some even view him as the savior of traditional country music, another title that makes Simpson wince. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the compliment. He’s flattered. But, as he explains, “If I’m gonna read all of this and believe the good, at some point, there’s gonna be a lot of bad, too, and I’m gonna have to believe that, as well. So I’ve come to this realization that it’s not really my job to control what people are gonna say, or call it, or label it, so I just sort of ‘shut the internet off,’ as it were. I find that the isolation helps me focus more on trying to do something that maybe I haven’t heard before.”

With that said, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth isn’t necessarily a country album. Or, better put, it isn’t solely a country album. Simpson’s voice hasn’t changed — he still sings like a self-described hillbilly, filtering 37 years of happiness, heartbreak, guilty and fatherly pride through a Kentucky drawl that leaps and lumbers — but the instruments that orbit his hillbilly howl have evolved. Blasts of brass punctuate the songs, the result of a day-long recording session in New York City with the Dap-Kings. Violin, cello, and upright piano dart their way through gaps in Simpson’s melodies, turning tracks like “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” into cinematic soundtracks for films that don’t yet exist. If Metamodern Sounds In Country Music — a record so resolutely countrified that it name-checked the genre in its own title — looked to the American South for inspiration, then A Sailor’s Guide To Earth casts a wider net. That net isn’t always global, as the title suggests, but it’s certainly nationwide, roping everything from Detroit soul to New Orleans funk into its nine tracks. Bookending the whole thing are field recordings of two oceans — the Pacific, whose crashing waves open up the first track, and the Atlantic, whose water and seagulls can be heard at the beginning of the album’s closer, “Call To Arms” — creating a coast-to-coast journey for anyone willing to tune in, turn up, and pull the anchor.

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