Sturgill Simpson, American musician and active critic of the country music industry, continues to transcend genres, leaving behind old sounds in the pursuit of creative freedom. With each new album, Simpson has expanded on his foundation of country, adding elements of psychedelic rock, R&B, blues and synth-electronic, to create a style of his own.
In an atmosphere where country music labels place creative restrains on artists, Simpson extends his music past the lines of stereotypical country-pop. Simpson protests the disingenuous sound prevalent in country today and seeks to prove that the genre can be more than a collection of generic words associated with farm life.
In 2009, Simpson worked at a railroad shipping yard in Salt Lake City. He played the occasional bar but considered his music merely a hobby. Simpson worked at the railroad until, in 2012, his friends and family convinced him to pursue a professional career in Nashville. In 2013, Simpson self-produced his first album, “High Top Mountain,” taking on a country ballad style reminiscent of legends Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
His first album makes revolutionary modern use of the ancient dobro and adds in a flare of funk to traditionally grounded honky-tonk music. My personal favorites from “High Top Mountain” are “Railroad of Sin” and “Sitting Here Without You.” The release of his first album garnered praise from the Nashville music community, but Simpson rejected their approval in protest of the homogenous music they produce.
His second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” is an act of defiance against the superficial sound prevalent in country music today. In this album, he makes it loud and clear that his music can’t be categorized and takes on philosophical themes such as consciousness, ego and spirituality.
“Metamodern Sounds” takes its listeners deep into the soul of Simpson with the use of psychedelic and sci-fi synth elements rarely exhibited in country. Although he stays loyal to his traditional form, he also implements progressive ideologies into a genre that has historically been motivated by conservative values.
In my favorite song from this album, “Turtles All the Way Down,” Simpson challenges restrictive ideologies of spirituality. He sings, “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames,” and, “Met Buddha yet another time, and he showed me a glowing light within, but I swear that God is there, every time I glare into the eyes of my best friend.”
Simpson was raised with a Christian ideology but, in this brilliant song, he recognizes the benefits of all religions. He sings, “Every time I take a look, inside that old and fabled book, I’m blinded and reminded of, the pain caused by some old man in the sky.”
Simpson’s lyrics emphasize that faith in love drives our spiritual evolution, and that specific distinctions, based on supernatural ideologies, shouldn’t drive us apart. My other favorites from this album are “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and his two cover songs, “Voices” and “Long White Line.”
In 2016, Simpson released his third album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” straying even further from his country roots and bringing in a range of new instruments that diversified and evolved his sound. Simpson extends his familiar elements of psychedelia and takes it to a new soulful level with meaningful contemporary lyrics, accompanied by an orchestra of strings and horns. He blends elements of R&B with boogie rock and country to create a distinct, but hard to describe, mood throughout the album.
Simpson wrote the lyrics to “Sailor’s Guide to Earth” while on tour, away from his wife and newborn son. The album is dedicated to his son and forms a collection of lessons. The advice he gives to his son examines the difficulties of this world and the growing disunity in our society. The lyrics in “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” and “Keep It Between The Lines” illustrate some of the applicable life lessons he shares with his son.
In the song “Brace For Impact (Live A Little),” Simpson dives into the setbacks we experience in life, and argues that we can move past our overwhelming anxieties. Simpson sings, “Go out and live a little, bone turns brittle, and skin withers before your eyes. Make sure you give a little, before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” altered the course of Simpson’s career, and won him a Grammy in 2017 for best country album.
With each new album, the singer has evolved his musical style, but his newest album, “SOUND & FURY,” marks the biggest transformation in Simpson’s sound. He describes his fourth album as a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll record,” and merges together elements of blues, country, psychedelic rock, boogie rock and synth-rock. Although Simpson’s lyrics and method of singing are best appreciated in his third album, his fourth album is the most experimental.
“Ronin” is a psychedelic progressive rock instrumental and “Fastest Horse In Town” mixes blues with funky psychedelic grunge rock. “SOUND & FURY” is Simpson’s most rebellious music and is based on his views of society, the music industry, fame and tradition. This album exemplifies Simpson’s rebellious cry of angst against the status quo of the Nashville record labels.
Simpson believes that country music labels continuously generate music with no heart, and has remained critical of them throughout his career, opting to self-finance most of his music.
Past outlaw country singers like Johnny Cash and Haggard have also spoken out against Nashville for being insincere and domineering, and when Haggard died, the Academy of Country Music Awards tried to label him as one of their own. Simpson took issue with this and, in 2016, burned his bridges with Nashville by criticizing the Academy of Country Music Awards for trying to “hitch their wagon” to Haggard.
Simpson has written off Nashville as a greedy and anti-creative industry that stifles artistic freedom and diversity. His rebellion against the modern country-pop sound has led Simpson to embrace an individualistic and unrestrained style of music — a style built from traditional outlaw country but expanded into something entirely unique.