When Sturgill Simpson released “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” the first single off his eagerly awaited new album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, it illustrated an evolution of Simpson’s psychedelic country sound. With a greasy Seventies blues-rock vibe and touches of organ, the song could even suggest a departure from the country genre — a misguided notion that tickles Simpson.
“Some people will say, and have said, that I’m trying to run from country, but I’m never going to make anything other than a country record. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song. . . but it doesn’t make the think pieces any less amusing,” Simpson tells Rolling Stone. “I thought it was hilarious when ‘Brace for Impact’ was released and people said I had abandoned country even though the song is dripping with pedal steel. If anything, that tells me I’m making progress.”
Set for release April 15th, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth leans heavily on seafaring allusions: the album cover depicts a vessel in roiling surf and features songs like the delicate “Breakers Roar” and the shuffling “Sea Stories,” which opens with a ringing ship’s bell. Simpson himself once served in the U.S. Navy.
“I wanted to capture certain elements of nautical life thematically, such as using brass to represent fog horns and wind, and blending the string section with pedal steel to mimic the breathing fluidity of water,” says Simpson, who enlisted funk-soul horn section the Dap-Kings to give the album its brassy skeleton.
Simpson also produced the record — a heartfelt manual to his young son about how to navigate life— on his own. His first two albums, 2013’s High Top Mountain and 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, were overseen by Dave Cobb.
“Due to the personal nature of the album I decided it was best not to collaborate with anyone,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make a concept record in song-cycle form, like my favorite Marvin Gaye records where everything just continuously flows. I also wanted it to be something that when my son is older and maybe I’m gone, he can listen to it and get a sense of who I was.”
The Kentucky singer-songwriter penned every track on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth except one — a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” off Nevermind. The tortured Kurt Cobain, and that seminal 1991 grunge album in particular, were an inspiration to the junior-high Simpson.
“I remember in seventh or eighth grade when that album dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man,” explains Simpson. “I wanted to make a very beautiful and pure homage to Kurt.”
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth marks Simpson’s first release for a major label. He signed to Atlantic Records last year after Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, released independently, garnered him country and rock fans alike. Even so, Simpson doesn’t buy into the idea that there are any additional expectations for the new album.
“It doesn’t feel like my life or the process has changed at all. Atlantic has been great to me. They didn’t flinch when I told them I was self-producing and nobody was popping their head in the studio,” he says. “Actually they didn’t hear a single note until the album was mastered so I really do have the creative freedom and the means to make the best art I possibly can now, which is all I ever really wanted. There are no expectations other than those I place on myself to be a great father and husband.”
In May, Simpson will kick off a spring tour with a pair of sold-out shows in Austin. Other dates, including those in his native Kentucky, have also sold out. With all of the brass and atmospheric sounds on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson is looking forward to the challenge of performing it in front of an audience, joking that the size of his band may jump dramatically.
“The album was recorded live, so it will be pretty fun to recreate,” he says. “Strings, horns, 30 deckhands singing shanty songs. . . the whole works.”