Fans of Sturgill Simpson have been getting a look into his diverse musical self with the three very different solo albums he’s released since 2013 — High Top Mountain, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and his latest piece of counter-country, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. But Simpson has always been guarded when it comes to his personal thoughts, so his appearance on Marc Maron’s influential WTF podcast today was a revealing treat.
Maron is famous for wide-ranging, in-depth and often hilarious interviews with big names in pop culture, including everyone from President Obama to Louis CK and Gary Shandling, and he got Simpson to open up in a way that the singer-songwriter has been reluctant to do in the past.
Here are five things we learned from Simpson’s visit to the WTF podcast:
1. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was intended as an actual life guide for Simpson’s 2-year-old son.
Conceptually it’s a letter from a parent to a child, and the narrative was laid out before Simpson even had the songs finished. Sailor’s Guide starts with a “birth” of sorts, then moves on to what a child might expect in the modern world, before concluding with an uplifting message to not be afraid of death. It also drives home the point that we’re all surrounded by love, even when it doesn’t seem like it. During the album’s “teenage” section, Simpson wasn’t sure what to say since he spent those years in a self-described haze, until his wife suggested covering a song from his adolescence: Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
2. Simpson has confidence issues.
Much like one of his musical heroes, Marvin Gaye, Simpson struggles with stage fright. “People think I’m pissed off onstage, but really I’m scared shitless and trying to fight through it. Entertaining is an aspect I’ve had to get a grip on,” Simpson told Maron. “Marvin could put out ‘Let’s Get It On’ and sell five million copies so he didn’t have to tour, but you have to now. The only way I’m going to support my family is to tour. I love playing, don’t get me wrong. That 90 minutes every night, that’s free. We get paid to travel. But every night I have to get myself locked in. There are a thousand people that don’t want to be disappointed because they have a lot of expectations.”
3. The cover art to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was a joke.
“That was me being a smartass. I wanted to make the tackiest album cover of all time and juxtapose it with the tin-type photos that were going on at the time, but even a more ancient version of it, so it’s a painting of a black and white photo on a space background,” Simpson revealed. “It’s all a joke — the title is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. I’m paying homage to Ray [Charles], but I needed to take myself a little less seriously at the time because [High Top Mountain] was such a serious record.”
4. He predicts a coming wave of mainstream “authentic country” artists.
“People were fed up with what they saw as a lack of recognition for ‘authentic country,’ but I knew [I] wouldn’t change anything. I got the ‘Savior of Country Music’ title and knew they would be let down,” Simpson said. “The industry propagates things it stands to benefit from and I knew the change had to come from the inside. A guy like me or Jason [Isbell], we can kick down doors all day but we’re not going to be the ones to walk through them. . . . [The industry] is welcoming in new ones like Chris Stapleton. . .but both fortunately and unfortunately I think in the next few years you’re going to see Music Row pumping out versions 1 through 37 of their ‘authentic country singers'” because they know right now they kind of look like assholes.
5. He takes some responsibility for country parody artist Wheeler Walker Jr., the alter-ego of comic Ben Hoffman. “I introduced Ben Hoffman to Dave Cobb [who produced Walker’s album Redneck Shit] because I was like, ‘This kinda has to happen.’ But I told him, ‘You can’t puss-cake out halfway through. You can’t tiptoe, it’s gotta be full fucking [Andy] Kaufman or I don’t ever want to see you again.’ It was on the Billboard country chart, which I think is fucking brilliant. It needs to be made fun of and I don’t just mean the mainstream. People get so hung up on, ‘This ain’t real country’ and it’s like, ‘Who fucking cares?'”