Country music gets a 21st century kick in the ass

I should begin this column by admitting that I know very little about either the music of Sturgill Simpson or the history of the man himself. I’ve chosen Simpson, or more precisely his song “Turtles All The Way Down,” as the topic of this month’s Bent Notes for one very simple reason: his song is the first country music in recent memory to make me laugh out loud with something other than disgust.

I came across Simpson’s video for “Turtles All The Way Down” from his album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” by pure chance, while randomly scanning YouTube music clips.

The first thing that caught my attention was the voice, a seemingly effortless mix of classic outlaw country with some indefinable, modern idiosyncrasy.

The first lines that voice uttered were, shall we say, memorable:

“I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire I was standing in,

Met the devil in Seattle and spent nine months inside the lion’s den.”

Though, like Simpson’s voice, the music that backed these words was pure early ’70s Nashville, clearly this was not a typical country song. By the second verse, which mentions Budda and “the glowing light within,” the video itself, which began as a straight-ahead performance by Simpson and his band, had morphed into a far weirder concern as well. Psychedelic bursts of color and washes of ink black calligraphy emerged to surround the band. As Simpson recounted advice he received from a higher authority to “show warmth to everyone, you meet and greet and cheat along the way,” a radiant flash of blue and white light exploded behind his face.

And then came these lines:

“There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane,

Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”

That’s a stunningly strange thing to say for someone who once claimed their goal was to make the hardest hardcore country album they possibly could. When I heard it, my reaction was simply to laugh, in surprise and some kind of weird, pure joy.

I also have to admit that it was just damn funny to hear those sentiments expressed by someone named Sturgill Simpson who sings like a genetic mashup of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and looks like a hung over auto mechanic.

With a slow inevitable grace, the song then turned to a philosophical discussion of America’s war on drugs and the final destination of the human soul. In the video, entire universes of light and celestial cascades engulfed Simpson and his band before fading to an image of a turtle crawling across the starry void.

Which brings us to that title. “Turtles All The Way Down” apparently refers to the myth that the world is a flat disc that rests on the back of a giant turtle, which stands on the back of a larger turtle, on and on into infinity. Turtles, all the way down.
I’ve watched the thing at least a dozen times since that first viewing, and it just gets stranger and better.

For all its seemingly bizarre messages, however, the song actually offers a fairly straightforward, even soothing take on life.

While Buddha, Jesus, God, extra terrestrials and mind altering substances all make appearances in the song, a closer listen reveals that Simpson is far from some new age spiritualist cherry picking the world’s religions in search of easy answers. Indeed, he seems to question salvation of either the chemical or religious variety, looking instead to a far simpler alternative.

“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,

Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT,

They all changed the way I see

But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

From what I can gather, Simpson, a Kentucky native, founded the electric bluegrass band Sunday Valley in his early 20s before moving to Utah, where he spent a number of shadowy years as a railroad worker. He first came to Nashville in 2005, spending his nights at the legendary Station Inn polishing his guitar chops and songwriting.

Though he eventually moved to Utah, in 2010 Simpson’s wife convinced him to give Music City another shot. He eventually found a sympathetic producer and, in 2013, released a critically acclaimed debut album “High Top Mountain.” The few songs I’ve heard off this album address traditional country themes such as love, drinking, and violence with wit and an ear for driving, catchy hooks. The voice is superb.

But honestly, I don’t give a damn where Sturgill Simpson came from. He’s clearly moved on to something far more interesting, peculiar and, dare I say it, important. However it came about, Simpson seems to have recognized the vast opportunities for sonic and lyrical exploration that have been largely neglected in country music, at least since the days of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Porter Wagoner’s tales of psychedelic insanity.

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Simpson commented, “I just reached a point where the thought of writing and singing any more songs about heartache and drinking made me feel incredibly bored with music. It’s just not a headspace I occupy much these days. Nighttime reading about theology, cosmology, and breakthroughs in modern physics and their relationship to a few personal experiences I’ve had led to most of the songs on the album.”

Simpson has described “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” as a ‘social-consciousness’ concept album disguised as a country record,” and who am I to argue.

If the rest of the album is half as interesting as “Turtles All The Way Down,” country music as we know it may have just gotten a psychadelic, 21st century wake up call.


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