By Kurt Wolff
A half-dozen years ago, Sturgill Simpson was just one of hundreds of guys from Kentucky working a day job and playing music on the side. Fast-forward to 2014, and his life has changed drastically.
And in his case, the change is positively stunning. He’s married now with a new baby who’s turning his life upside-down at home. And at the same time, that music he’d been playing all his life is now wowing fans and critics alike, thanks to his acclaimed new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Metamodern Sounds (produced by Dave Cobb) is a purely independent project, yet since its release in May, Simpson has already appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, gotten a backstage visit from David Byrne (he’s a big fan of the album) and received a personal invite from country superstar Zac Brown to open arena shows on his Great American Road Trip tour this summer.
“We’ve done three so far and it’s been great,” Simpson told Radio.com about the experience so far with the Zac Brown Band. “They’ve been absolutely great to us, the whole crew, Zac, everybody. It’s an amazing opportunity to go out and get in front of that many people. Especially when you find out the other guy [Brown] pegged you himself just because he likes your music.”
Despite playing music since he was young, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is only Simpson’s second collection of songs (his first, High Top Mountain, came out in 2013). The album even debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard country album chart, a rare feat for an independent artist.
“There’s a lot of hype,” Simpson admits, referencing the seemingly endless stream of interviews he’s been conducting and all the praise he’s earned around the release. “But I think it’s all organic. People are responding, so it makes us proud.”
Center stage on Metamodern Sounds are some of the finest country songs you’ll hear this year, all wrapped up in Simpson’s rich, full baritone voice. Strong but never overburdened, his vocals work as well on gentle ballads as they do on heavier, more guitar-driven material. As a singer, Simpson is frequently compared to Waylon Jennings — which is not off the mark, as the two do share vocal qualities, and much of the album’s production does echo the sparse, unhurried sound of Waylon’s early-1970s releases like This Time and Dreaming My Dreams.
The deeper you listen, however, the more complex things get. Lead track “Turtles All the Way Down,” for instance, has a lot more going on than its pared-down structure and easygoing rhythm might at first imply. Alongside a sound that appears inspired by ‘outlaw’-era artists like Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and the late Tompall Glaser, the song references Stephen Hawking in its title and includes lyrics that touch on Jesus, Buddha and various psychedelic substances—not to mention “reptile aliens made of light” that can “cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
Simpson doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. “A lot of people have said it’s progressive and groundbreaking—I didn’t think it was that progressive,” he said of the song. “I mention a few hallucinogenic substances, but outside of that I don’t think it’s all that cutting edge. I was shocked that a lot of journalists put that spin on it.” At the same time, he admitted: “I doubt anybody’s ever talked about DMT in a country song.”
At its heart, he said, “It’s just a very simple country ballad. We just had some fun with the production values and a lot of the old analog techniques that are probably outdated, especially in the modern country sonic landscape.”
Further songs on the album, though, such as “Long White Line” and “Life of Sin” (the latter of which Simpson played during his Letterman appearance) are less esoteric in their reference points, though no less powerful in their emotional impact. The album closes with “It Ain’t All Flowers,” a wilder and less-contained track that employs backward tracking and appears to sonically revisit the spiritual and mental transformations referenced in “Turtles.”
Which, Simpson said, are sort of the theme behind the album as a whole.
“I call it my last existential dilemma, I guess. Night time reading. It’s all over the place, it’s a very loose concept.” He pauses at this point, admitting that he’s a bit tired of hashing through the metaphysical themes as well as the heady reading list that inspired some of the lyrics. “To be honest I’ve probably talked about it a thousand times more than I spent writing it,” he said of the album. “I don’t know how much left I have in the tank [laughs].”
But again, the album is in many regards very down-to-earth. For instance, smack dab in the middle of Metamodern Sounds is one of the gentlest love ballads you might hear all year, “The Promise.”
If something about the song seems familiar, then perhaps you grew up listening to radio in the late 1980s, because “The Promise” is actually a cover of a song by new wave group When in Rome.
The original version of the song was a Top 20 pop hit in 1988; it later appeared in the closing credits to the film Napoleon Dynamite. Simpson said he likely first heard the song “in my mother’s car when I was about 8 years old.”
And his version of “The Promise” couldn’t be more different from the original. “We probably made it a little too different, because almost nobody spots it,” Simpson said. “They get to the chorus and they ask themselves, ‘Why in the hell do I already know the words.'”
Simpson explained that he’d been “toying with the idea” of covering the song “for about four years. It’s just a really honest, heartfelt, very poignant, vulnerable love song. I also figured that for the conceptual theme of the record, it’d be fun to take an ’80s song and apply ’60s production values to it.”
Simpson said that When in Rome’s Clive Farrington, one of the songwriters, “actually reached out to us to say he likes our version better.” Which he said is something you strive for when doing a cover: “That’s the reward, I guess.”
Another artist frequently associated with the 1980s who’s a fan of Simpson’s music? David Byrne.
At a recent gig in New York (the night after he played Letterman), Simpson went back to his dressing room and found Byrne there waiting to greet him.
“I walked out the door and he was standing there,” Simpson said. “I looked at him and thought, ‘He looks familiar. Oh…yeah!’ He hung out with us a little while. Really nice guy. And great hair! It deserves its own album deal.”
Walked out of dressing room & came face 2 face with a true musical pioneer & hero of mine..same as it ever was.. fb.me/3nIQBvvuo—
Sturgill Simpson (@SturgillSimpson) July 16, 2014
The respect between the two artists was, of course, mutual. “I had a good six month window in my early 20s when I got pretty obsessed with all that stuff,” Simpson said of Byrne’s music. “So definitely, he’s an influence.”
It turns out, too, that not only did Byrne seek him out personally, he had bought the Metamodern Sounds album directly from Simpson’s website.
“My manager keeps track of what people purchase from our website,” Simpson explains. “And he sees the name ‘David Byrne’ in the receipt, and it makes you kinda wonder. But yeah, he actually went online and purchased it directly from us. Which I thought was really cool.”
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is available from Simpson’s website as well as stores and other digital retailers. Simpson and his band continue to play select dates on the Zac Brown Band’s Great American Road Trip this summer, and in addition they have their own series of concert dates scheduled through late 2014.