Sturgill Simpson: Sea Changes


Videos by American Songwriter

A former Navy sailor himself, Simpson spent time on several oceans during the late ’90s. A Sailor’s Guide draws heavily on those years at sea, with songs that read like love letters to those left on dry land. “Sea Stories,” in particular, moves forward like a biographical travelogue, with Simpson whisking his listeners from ports in Kawasaki and Yokohama to bars in Singapore. He describes the track as “a country song that sounds like Cheap Trick recorded it,” but “Sea Stories” — along with the entire album — is more personal than that. It doesn’t sound like Cheap Trick. It sounds like Simpson, a man who’s learning how to move ahead by taking a glance backward.

“I left home two weeks after I graduated high school in the summer of 1996, and I got out in 1999,” he remembers. “Most of my enlistment was in Asia and in Tokyo. If we weren’t out at sea doing training exercises, we were in Roppongi or Shibuya, partying like it was 1999.”

His unit spent a lot of time on the water, though. At 19 years old, Simpson found himself averaging two or three hours of sleep per night, then spending the daytime hours handling costly — and potentially deadly — machinery. His ship once spent 96 days at sea without coming anywhere close to land, and many of the sailors relied on drugs to help them cope, resulting in a warship partially operated by teenage acid-trippers. Things settled down a bit once he got home and left the armed services, but his experience in the Navy left a permanent mark. In many ways, it was his first taste of the touring lifestyle.

“I just never stopped living out of a bag, even when I got out of the Navy,” he says. “I was just … floating. Then I settled down and married, and when my son was born, the only place I wanted to be was at home. But I was out playing shows, and that was great, too! Those two hours a night — the time we spend onstage — is incredible. But it’s the tedious, 22-hour period that surrounds those two hours that really gets to you. That was the toughest transition for me, just trying to figure out what to do with my mind and my guilt.”

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth dives into that contradictory swirl of guilt, pride, wanderlust, and homesickness. Simpson began sketching out the songs while in the middle of a seemingly infinite string of tour dates, jotting down pieces of advice for his newborn son in the form of short poems. He’d been inspired by a letter that his grandfather, Ora, had written more than a half-century ago, back when he was a young soldier fighting in World War II. He had a family back home, including a wife and a newborn son — Simpson’s uncle — whom he feared he’d never see again. A quiet, reserved man who, in keeping with the trend of most mid-century American males, didn’t often share his emotions, Grandpa Ora poured out his heart in that letter. Years later, Simpson’s aunt inherited the note and kept it on a nightstand in her guest room. Most of the family refused to read it — the letter was too personal, too private even for relatives to see — but that didn’t stop a young, rule-breaking Simpson from snatching up the letter and poring over every word during a visit to his aunt’s house. It floored him.

“My grandmother died when my dad was very young,” he says, “so between losing his wife and dealing with his memories of the war, my grandfather was never an easy guy to get to know. He was a very stoic, hillbilly dude. He loved bluegrass music, which was the only thing that ever brought excitement to his face. I read this letter that he’d written as a young man, thinking he was going to die, and I learned more from reading those words than I ever could have by being around him.”

Simpson wanted to write something similar to his own son. While riding in the band’s tour bus — an upgrade from the passenger van that Simpson and company occupied until the middle of 2015 — he whipped up lyrics that mixed together stories from his seafaring years with nuggets of hard-won wisdom gleaned from the road. Sitting in the kitchen in North Nashville one year later, he’s quick to point out that touring the globe with a country-rock band isn’t exactly the equivalent of storming Normandy Beach. He hopes people don’t think he’s trying to glorify his job. Then again, he doesn’t really mind what they think. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth may be his most anticipated album to date, with more people clamoring to hear Simpson’s songs than ever before, but it’s also his most personal project, aimed not at a swelling fanbase but at a 2-year-old boy. If people don’t get it, who cares?

“I wanted to make a musical journey for him, something that captured all the music I’ve loved throughout my life,” he explains. “An amalgamation of all the different types of American recorded music — other than country and bluegrass, since the first two records were so attuned to that — that mean something to me. As soon as I sing and open my mouth, it’s going to sound like country music, but I knew I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted it to be a conceptual record. I know that was frustrating for everyone else involved, because I could already hear what I wanted to do and didn’t know how to go about articulating it. So it was just about getting into the studio and doing it.”

To do it right, Simpson knew he needed to make some changes to the team that had given Metamodern its psychedelic stomp. Pedal steel player Dan Dugmore was brought into the fold, joining longtime band members Laur Joamets and Miles Miller. Bagpiper Dougie MacLean got a piece of the action, too, contributing 10 seconds of reedy, Celtic-sounding drone to the album. Meanwhile, Dave Cobb — the Americana producer who helped break the careers of Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell during the same three-year stretch — was notably absent from the sessions. Simpson, who calls Cobb “brilliant,” insists he has nothing but warm feelings for the man who oversaw High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. The singer needed to bring to life the sound he was hearing in his own head, though, and that meant producing the album himself.

“I talked to Ferg,” Simpson begins, referring to his new sound engineer, David Ferguson, “and said, ‘Let’s set a week aside and go cut some demos, so I can see where these songs are at.’ I was a little bit insecure about the whole thing, this being the first time I’d ever produced. Then we got into the Butcher Shoppe studio, and four days later, the record was done. You start moving fast, I guess, and you don’t wanna second guess anything.”

Ferguson, who first met Simpson during a card game at Dan Auerbach’s house, is an old-school Nashville cat — the sort of guy who grew up in town, learned his way around a recording console at a young age and began working with titans like Johnny Cash while still in his mid-20s. He’s not easily impressed. In Simpson, he found a kindred spirit. Together, the two layered the Dap-Kings’ horns over the sound of squawking sea gulls and roaring waves to help symbolize foghorns. They took Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and transformed its grungy angst into heady, orchestral folk. They added a classical string section to “Breakers Roar” and punctuated “All Around You” with Motown-worthy muscle. They approached “Keep It Between The Lines” like it was the score for some 1970s action movie, mixing funky horns and harmonized guitar solos into the same package. And they did it all quickly, wrapping it all up in less than a week.

“Everything you’re hearing is all live vocals,” Ferguson says. “Sturg didn’t wear no headphones throughout the whole thing. What’s the point in going into an isolation [booth] when you’re trying to capture something with a band? You don’t wanna sterilize that. Live performance is the way to do it. The guy is a genius. He’s a genius for all time, and you can quote me on that.”

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