Is Sturgill Simpson Country Music's Savior? Not If He Can Help It

Acclaimed new artist talks "hippie love," pointless hate and how hallucinogens freed his mind

Sturgill Simpson
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Sturgill Simpson
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At a recent show in Milwaukee, Sturgill Simpson found himself face-to-face with a curiously irate audience member. Her issue: the Kentucky-born deep thinker was trying to secretly spread Gnostic beliefs through his twangy yet decidedly progressive country songs.

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"She was dead serious. She sat through the whole fucking show and waited until I was at the merch booth just to come over and tell me that I was preaching Gnosticism and that she hopes her children were never exposed to my music," says Simpson, his eyes widening as he recalls the lengths to which the woman went to get her skewed message across.

In the end, Simpson only smiled at his detractor, deciding that it wasn't worth getting into an argument about spiritualism while selling T-shirts and copies of his latest album, the stellar Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

"Honestly, the conversation was so weird that I had to go out and look on Wikipedia in the van after the show to really understand what Gnostics believe," he admits. "And they do think that we're all remnants of stardust from the one Divine that have been trapped in these physical bodies. I was like, 'Fuck, I wish I was that clever.'"

The truth is, Simpson, 35, isn't preaching anything — least of all the gospel of what does and doesn't qualify as country music. That may come as a letdown to those who have pegged him as a country music Jesus, the one who will vanquish "bro country" artists to the dirt roads from whence they came.

Seated in a booth in a favorite coffeeshop in his still-gentrifying neighborhood north of downtown Nashville, Simpson looks less like the modern-day Waylon Jennings to whom he's been compared and more like an unassuming graphic designer. With his sneakers poking out from underneath the table, Simpson, earbuds in, has his face buried in his MacBook, researching Martin guitars that he'll fantasize about but not purchase.

When a bottle of Mexican Coke is placed on the table, he shares a disconcerting rumor he's heard about Coca-Cola corporate asking Mexico to cease using cane sugar in favor of the high fructose corn syrup in its U.S. counterpart. "Nothing's sacred," he sighs.

Yet Simpson, untangling and then meticulously wrapping and rewrapping his ear buds back into their case, doesn't extend that comment to country music. 

"A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don't have anything to really offer there," he says. "Because, fortunately, I’ve never pursued that side of the industry, which means I never had the opportunity to be screwed over or have any of these horror stories that you hear about. So for me to sit and talk about that stuff would be insulting to people who have, and extremely naïve.

"Nothing is really different than it was. It's always been like this," continues Simpson on the cyclical nature of country trends. "I think Tompall Glaser said it best in the Seventies: 'Unless you have a solution or an alternative, shut the fuck up. Because you're just part of the problem.' I just want to write music that pertains to my life as honestly as I can."

"In my opinion, he's as authentic as it gets," says Shooter Jennings of Simpson. Jennings, the son of Waylon Jennings, has been a fan of Simpson's work since his days in the group Sunday Valley and is wowed by the musical similarity to his legendary father — however unintentional it may be.

"There are so many people who play guitar like my dad, and so many people that imitate that sound, but nobody actually gets it," Jennings says. "Sturgill isn't imitating at all, and he sounds like my favorite era of my dad, the Seventies, when he would sing quieter and more conversational. That's what struck me about Sturgill from Day One. And still does."

Simpson understands why disenchanted country fans have rallied around him since the release of his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain. With Outlaw Movement throwbacks like "You Can Have the Crown" and "Some Days," the album is the antithesis to today's slick country radio playlists. Its follow-up, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, released in May, draws on Simpson favorites Radiohead and Beck (he also buys every album put out by Tool) but remains rooted in traditional country. It's easy for fans to interpret both albums as a response to the mainstream.

"No, not at all," Simpson counters. "They want somebody to be that guy and I understand there's a lot of frustration, but I just think there is so much negativity as it is."

In part, he's referring to traditional country's vocal online community, which often calls out artists like Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Florida Georgia Line for corrupting the genre with hip-hop beats and party-all-the-time lyrics. The barbs are occasionally funny, but frequently harsh.

"Brutal. Brutal, man," Simpson says of the blogs. "These people [being singled out], whether you like their music or not, they're human beings. And you know they see that shit."

To him, the answer is simple: "Get in where you fit in, and if you don't like it, ignore it."

Boiled down, live and let live is the theme of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — Simpson jokes that it's his "hippie love record." The album, and especially leadoff track "Turtles All the Way Down," contains more cosmic theories than a Stephen Hawking lecture.

Simpson became obsessed with the origins of the universe and humankind's role in the big picture while writing for the project. He rattles off a list of books that inspired him, including The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. "He was a Jesuit priest who was blackballed by the Vatican for embracing the fact that evolution and spirituality were symbiotic and that everything is evolving toward a divine existence in the consciousness and the universe," he tries to explain. "Which is where the turtle comes in. The turtle myth is kind of a comedic expression in metaphysics now. It represents a much grander idea of what is known as the Unmoved Mover, or this one central divine source of all complex consciousness in the universe. And according to the theory — and I say theory because I don't ever want to say I agree with it — but it is still a beautiful idea that everything is being emitted from one point and that we're all this universal shared consciousness."

"Most guys like to talk about themselves, but Sturgill likes to talk about other shit. And I love that," says Jennings, who shares an interest in science and niche theories with Simpson. "Conversations with Sturgill, he'll start talking about his own music, but it'll end up somewhere so far out. It's so fun to talk to him, smoke a joint and just talk."

The turtle myth that helped sprout "Turtles All the Way Down," for which Simpson filmed a Ken Kesey-worthy psychedelic video, involves the belief that the earth rests upon the back of an interstellar shelled reptile.

"It's in Hindu cosmology and a couple of Native American tribes have a similar myth," says Simpson. Now, the theory is used more to label another theory as absurd. "It's basically a comedic or jocular way of saying, 'What you propose is interesting or no more or less complex or mind-blowing than what the Old Testament proposes, but none of us really know anything.'

"For anybody to say this is the truth..." Simpson continues, taking a deep pause as if he's mentally running through every major religion's view of the afterlife, "nobody is going to know until you die. So unless you died and came back to life, it's like Tompall said: 'Maybe you should shut the fuck up.' For me, the only thing that has ever brought me any answers or personal fulfillment was just letting go of anger and fear and a lot of insecurities. And finding someone in the world that recognizes all your faults and looks beyond that and still loves you. I think we can all use a little bit more of that. Not to sound all hippie and stoner-cliché about it, but fuck it, man. Just be nice. And someday we'll find out. We all get our turn."

 

Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson (Photo: The Washington Post)

Simpson grew up the son of a former undercover narcotics officer whose commitment to the drug war — "There were times he was gone for months and he'd show back up, his hair is long, he's got a beard, driving a black Mustang, and I was like, 'Who the fuck is that guy?'" Simpson recalls of his father — contributed to his parents divorcing.

"[His] job led to a pretty tumultuous childhood. My mother, she spent most of her early life living in this prefab trailer home off the highway in eastern Kentucky. I think at one point, she basically told him it's the job or us," he says. "From what I remember, it wasn't a very stable environment. How could it be?"

Despite his father's anti-drug profession and worldview, Simpson conducted his own hallucinogenic experiments. One of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music's most analyzed lyrics is the litany of mind-alterers — marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT — in "Turtles All the Way Down."

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"I had some pretty introspective, therapeutic, healing [experiences]," Simpson states matter-of-factly. "You see the fabric of reality ripping apart in front of your eyes, and you're staring at the ocean and breathing along with the tide, and all of a sudden you understand that you react to things this way because of something that happened to you when you were four, that you'd buried. You come out of that, and if it doesn't give you a little pause for trying to be a better human being, then you missed the point."

Even so, his tripping days are over. "It's been years… and I don’t really feel the need to ever do it again, honestly."

Instead, he's just trying to make sense of his newfound notoriety. A recent Americana Music Association award nomination for Emerging Artist of the Year, opposite acts like soul band St. Paul & the Broken Bones and folkie Hurray for the Riff Raff, has left him feeling befuddled, perhaps even shackled. He rolls his eyes when congratulated on the honor, and will offer little more than a "no comment" when asked if he'll appear at the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony in Nashville in September.

"I don't know where I fit in," he says, looking conflicted, "but I do know that when I figure it out, it ain't going to be because somebody else did it for me."

Nor does he want to be fitted for that country savior crown.

"I don’t need that pressure," Simpson says. "And what does that even really mean? It’s not like Clear Channel is going to wake up tomorrow and be like, 'Oh, let's play this guy for a while and see what happens.' No. There are no delusions of the tide shifting. I just try to do what I believe in and, more importantly, wake up in 20 or 30 years and still feel proud. These records may be the only semblance of who I actually was someday. To anybody that gives a shit."