Archive for Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson’s had enough of your crap

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Concert, Review with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by Todd

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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.

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A cockeyed take on fatherly advice

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on July 5, 2016 by Todd

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Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” may be the best country album  ever to include an R&B horn section, strings, sheets of psychedelic guitar and a cover version of one of alternative rock’s most beloved hits.

The fact that Simpson’s latest release is also the only country album to include all those elements does nothing to diminish the remarkable beauty and soul to be found therein.

For anyone who’s kept up with Simpson’s career thus far, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” should come as no surprise at all, following as it does on the heels of his Grammy-nominated 2014 release, “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.” But where that previous album featured songs that pondered the significance of “reptile aliens made of light” and transcendental realms of consciousness, Simpson’s latest was inspired by a far more traditional subject — fatherhood. The entire album, in fact, was constructed as a way to pass on the hard knowledge Simpson has gained over the course of his 37 years of sometimes hand-to-mouth living.

Listeners searching for a set of clichéd bromides to pacify their youngsters would do well to stay far away from Simpson’s version of fatherly advice.

“Go and live a little, Bone turns brittle, And skin withers before your eyes,” he urges on the scalding “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).”

Simpson, a Navy veteran, also addresses the age-old ritual of the young being  sent off to war, and a society that equates violence and callousness with manhood.

In “Sea Stories” he describes a new service member as “Just another enlisted egg, in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater.” Simpson imagines the young man’s battle with drug addiction, which results in his dishonorable discharge.

“You’ll spend the next year trying to score

From a futon life raft on the floor

And the next fifteen trying to figure out

What the hell you did that for”

And then he drops the unexpected denouement:

“But flying high beats dying for lies

In a politician’s war”

The song that immediately follows, a midnight soul cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” takes that work’s critique of unthinking consumer culture and cross pollinates it with the Bee Gees classic “To Love Someone.” It’s a startling move that could have been deeply embarrassing in lesser hands. Simpson’s reading, however, sounds as natural, as inevitable, as a child’s first words.

Of course, all the inspired lyrics and hip song choices would mean little without an equally potent sound to brace up the whole affair. In that  pursuit, Simpson is aided in no small part by both his ace touring band and The Dap-Kings, the swaggering R&B horn section perhaps best known for their work on Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough album “Back to Black.” The combination concoct a dense, rhythmic brew that is at once brighter and more seethingly alive than anything he’s tried before.

With the recent passing of country contrarians Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, Simpson is one of the few musicians left standing who seem willing to not only meet the music’s storied traditions head on, but also cast them aside completely when it suits his restless vision. In the process, he’s proven himself to be one of the few country artists whose albums are anticipated with the same sense of ‘What will he come up with next?’ wonder as progressive rock and rap acts such as Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar.

Whatever direction Simpson chooses to go in the years ahead, he’s already left most of his peers far behind. With a voice like pine tar and dust and a mind like a tornado, it’s bound to be a fascinating journey.

Country music gets a 21st century kick in the ass

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , on May 28, 2014 by Todd

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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.
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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.