Saturday Night Live is in the midst of a comic resurgence, thanks to one of their strongest casts in years and an abundance of surreal political and social material for their writers to draw from. Last weekend, they finally chose a musical guest that matched the best of what the show has always offered — the kind of black wit and ferocious irreverence rarely seen on prime time television, and a working class disgust at the endless parade of hypocrites and charlatans that seem to curry such favor in this country.
The head honchos at SNL took a risk when they chose Sturgill Simpson, a relatively unknown country artist as last week’s musical guest. He responded with a performance that evinced more teeth gnashing anger, energy and full-on foot stomping glee than any rock group, rapper, or R&B warbler I’ve seen on the show in years.
Simpson performed two songs off his latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a concept album dedicated to his young son that offers advice on navigating the trials and temptations of 21st century adolescence and adulthood.
Taking the stage dressed in an expertly tailored black suit, Simpson led off with “Keep it Between the Lines,” a plea to “stay in school and stay off the hard stuff.” Backed by the horn-driven funk of the Dap Kings, the Kentucky native stalked the mic with tight-eyed intensity, bearing down on key lines like a prize fighter cornering a punch drunk opponent.
“If there’s any doubt, then there is no doubt
The gut don’t never lie
And the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is, why”
His follow-up performance of the raging “Call to Arms” put to rest any notion that Simpson is merely a classic country retread. He stomped and raged like the love child of George Jones and Johnny Rotten, riding the roiling groove and locking eyes with his bandmates as the song unspooled its cold, coiled admonition.
“Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war
To control the heroin
Well son I hope you don’t grow up
Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”
A country act on SNL is rare, but then Sturgill Simpson probably isn’t most people’s idea of what that musical term has come to mean over the last three decades.
Born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, he was the first male in his mother’s family not to work the coal mines. The son of a state cop, he was busted selling drugs in his senior year of high school and, before graduation, enlisted in the Navy.
“I saw shocking things in the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, that, as a teenager, shook me to my core. My worldview darkened,” he told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “When I got out after three years, I hung around the Seattle area, a lost soul. I seated tables at IHOP. Then I came home to Lexington in 1999 and experienced an epiphany: I was driving my pickup when Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” came on. I was transported to childhood.”
After being reintroduced to the dark, keening sounds of his home state, Simpson formed a bluegrass band and shortly afterward moved to Nashville in an attempt to kickstart a songwriting career. Instead, he found himself broke and depressed, stuck in a cinder block apartment with no idea how to hustle his music.
By 2006 Simpson was living in Salt Lake City, working for a railroad as an operations manager. But still, there was the music.
Sensing his growing desperation, Simpson’s wife convinced him to give Nashville another try. He followed up an impressive, though fairly conventional debut, High Top Mountain, with a wildly genre defying sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which featured feedback symphonies and lyrics about reptilian space aliens made of light.
With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and with last weekend’s SNL performance, Simpson has proven himself to be one of the few country artists with the brains, heart and guts to embody the best of the music’s past while paying absolutely no heed to the genre’s staid conventions.
“Maybe I’ll do a dance record. Or maybe another song cycle, this time a love story from the Old West,” he told Rolling Stone. “Whichever way I go, I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself.”
Whatever he decides, I’ll be listening.