Sturgill Simpson: Sea Changes


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Thirty Tigers CEO David Macias, whose company helped distribute Simpson’s first two solo records, echoes those thoughts.

“We were all very excited when we first heard Metamodern,” he says of the Thirty Tigers team. “We knew what was there, musically. I don’t think we knew what was there, commercially, because we didn’t anticipate it would hit people quite that hard. You can never anticipate that, really. But Sturgill really struck a chord with people. We live in a world where the media can lack substance and spirit — it’s a reality TV world — and at a certain point, people want to connect with something that has deeper meaning. They want to connect to the things that bind us all. Sturgill’s music speak to that. He’s singing about love and friendship and spirituality without necessarily talking about a deity. He’s such an important artist — someone who’s brave, honest, and really knows who he is. I have intense admiration for him.”

The feeling is mutual, even though Simpson is no longer working with Thirty Tigers. He signed with Atlantic Records in 2015, landing a spot on the same roster as Led Zeppelin and Ray Charles. Still outspoken and proudly independent, he seems like an odd addition to one of the biggest labels of the past 70 years. Craig Kallman, Atlantic’s CEO, approached Simpson as a fan, promising that the label wouldn’t get in the way of his art — no matter what direction it took. Kallman has kept his word, and Simpson is happy.

“They make their money off other big, big acts — acts who sell the sort of numbers I know I’ll never produce,” he notes. “But that’s not why Craig wanted to sign me. I was very clear up front that I never want to make the same record twice, so they knew this album wasn’t going to be another Metamodern. And they didn’t even hear the record until after it was mastered. I couldn’t believe how hands-off they’ve been. I signed with a big label, but that only added two or three more sets of fingers to the pie. We’re still a small team. They’ve basically done exactly what I was putting out in interviews since Day One: that if someone came along and liked what I was doing and wanted to help without getting in the way, then great.”


It’s closer to dinnertime now, and Simpson has been sitting at the kitchen table for nearly 75 minutes, reliving the creation of A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. He needs a break. At the same time, he’s ready to bring a different sort of break — his half-year absence from the road, which started around Thanksgiving and ends this spring — to an end. A beefed-up band will join him on the road later this year, to help recreate Sailor’s sonic sweep with a horn section and other additions. It’s exciting stuff. Simpson has been missing the sound checks, the encores, and the way a nightly string of gigs can whittle down his band’s rough patches into something polished and punchy. “You learn how to communicate without communicating,” he says. “I can look at Miles now and know pretty much what he’s thinking, just by how his eyebrows are hanging. It makes the band better.”

Radio stations still don’t play his music. He’s too unchained for the country format. Too raw for Top 40 radio. Too symphonic for rock. As a result, touring has become a necessity. It’s the most direct way for Simpson to grow his audience, and the crowd response tells him whether it’s working or not.

“It’s awesome to me that we can go out and play two hours at the Beacon Theater, and everybody in the room is singing along to every single song, and none of them are on the radio,” he explains, wide-eyed. “That tells me that people are really there for the music.”

He’s going to miss his son, of course. His wife, too. That part of his job will never become easy, and Simpson knows that more success essentially means more time spent far away from home. Still, he’ll feel closer to his family this time around. The new album is dedicated to his son, and Simpson can feel his presence throughout the tracklist. It’s comforting. And with that sort of reassurance, he can look at the touring cycle that looms ahead — the late nights, early mornings, and long hours in between — and prepare to dive in.

Once a sailor, always a sailor.

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