Sturgill Simpson Battles Illness, Cranks Up for Guns N' Roses

Country revolutionary wins over hard-rock crowd with slimmed-down band and big guitars

Sturgill Simpson opened for Guns N' Roses at the Little Rock, Arkansas, stop of their Not in This Lifetime Tour. Credit: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

"It's the worst being sick on the road," Sturgill Simpson tells Rolling Stone Country, texting from a tour bus on a 1,600-mile haul from Arkansas to South Florida, where, Tuesday night, the unconventional country singer plays the last of three stadium dates supporting his childhood heroes Guns N' Roses. He's hoping the case of "road gut" that afflicted him before the first gig in Denver subsides before the last hurrah in Miami.

"Ain't been right since Tokyo and got holed up in a Little Rock Holiday Inn for two nights. Bubble guts," Simpson texts minutes after winning over tens of thousands of heshers at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium Saturday night. The Kentucky native squeezed in the GN'R run between a recent festival date in Niigata, Japan, and an upcoming two-week tour supporting John Prine in Ireland.

"It's a bucket-list check," says Simpson – who, like many Gen Xers, idolized Guns N' Roses when Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan and their cohorts ruled the world – of getting the opening slot, for which he was told Rose personally requested him.

Massive stadium tours seldom land in Little Rock, so Saturday's show was the first at War Memorial since 'N Sync's 2001 PopOdyssey trek. When Simpson took the stage with an opening "It Ain't All Flowers," off Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, playing to the thousands who had planned ahead, there was still a traffic jam for the parking lots and lines worthy of a summer day at Six Flags stretching from the coliseum gates.

With Simpson assuming lead guitar duties after parting ways with longtime band member Laur Joamets and jettisoning the horn section that punctuated his Grammy-winning third LP A Sailor's Guide to Earth for a lean four-piece setup, songs like the swampy "Brace for Impact" and "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" had a meat-and-potatoes grit that got down to their bare essentials. Those reinventions might have challenged hardcore fans (as Simpson is wont to do), but in their current form, the songs rocked harder than ever, and that mattered to a stadium filling up with GN'R fans who – perhaps unaware of Simpson's work – gave increasingly warm receptions to increasingly hot performances.

"There is something incredibly freeing about opening for GN'R and unapologetically ripping on a Strat." - Sturgill Simpson

From the cheap seats there were no signs of road gut as Simpson charged bull-like between keyboardist Bobby Emmett and drummer Miles Miller on the instrumental breaks of "Keep It Between the Lines," which went from a live-and-learn country-rocker to heavy-metal shred-fest by song's end, or the runaway train freak-out of set-closing showstopper "Call to Arms." Proving Slash and Izzy Stradlin stand-in Richard Fortus weren't the only guitar gods in the house, Simpson glided up and down his fretboard and won over the hard rock faithful with a barrage of bluesy blood-and-guts solos and fiery licks in place of skronking horns.

"There is something incredibly freeing about opening for GN'R and unapologetically ripping on a Strat," Simpson said after the gig, "with some straight-up sweaty mud ass, to make a man feel proud to be alive."

Now more than a year and four continents into the Not in This Lifetime… Tour, by this point Guns N' Roses are rehearsed down to every last backbend, power stance and mic stand toss. But it's still the show fans waited decades to see, is as good as any show in rock and is the freshest the band has sounded since their club dates. Some of the urgency might be gone from early tour shows, but Saturday night the band was still coming on stage five minutes early and Rose was all smiles – especially when humbly thanking the crowd for cheering him on as he tingled spines holding out the final note of "Patience" – painting a picture of an iconic rock & roll institution whose legendary drama seems firmly in the rearview.