Mistaking country songwriter Sturgill Simpson for some hot-headed, cold-blooded redneck rebel proves easy, at least if you're prone to read the headlines and questions of interviews while skipping the answers themselves. This would mean, of course, missing Simpson's side of the story, and that's the most interesting part.
Since the May release of his second solo album, the brilliant and illusory Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson has been heralded as the new icon of outlaw country, a would-be sledgehammer to Nashville's cash-reinforced machinery. After seeing him sing about weed and pharmaceuticals inside a sanctuary at South by Southwest, one Rolling Stone reporter called Simpson music's "best new country badass." And a few months later, when he sang "goddamn" on Conan, he responded to conservative harangues much like one of The Highwaymen might have: "I sang it like I wrote it. Censorship is bullshit. This is America and people can say anything they want including 'Goddamn' at the top of their lungs on national TV."
By then, that riposte seemed consistent with Simpson's character, at least as developed by writers seeking a sensational take. Profiling Simpson for the Oxford American, Aaron Frank described the record as "an inciting departure from the commercial sheen of today's mainstream country" before delivering a string of leading queries about how the genre had failed and how Simpson might supersede it. And American Songwriter asked him bluntly if he'd ever been interested in "entering the mainstream country world," as though doing so amounted to a life-sentence in San Quentin for shoplifting or Sisyphean tours of duty in the Middle East. He demurred.
There is some substance to these claims, of course: He's issued both his albums through his own label, refusing to reach for a bigger imprint. Metamodern Sounds starts from a core of hardline, no-nonsense country—the burl of Waylon Jennings' baritone is a common comparison—but spirals quickly and readily into astral planes. "Just Let Go," which name-checks Tibetan Bardos and traces the Buddhist ideal of shoshin, never loses its soft, two-step trot. The guitars lift into the middle distance, and Simpson routes his voice through a set of psychedelic effects. Simpson acknowledges country music's righteous old savior, too, if only to lampoon or lambaste him. "That old man upstairs, he wears a crooked smile," he growls at one point. "Staring down at the chaos he created."
But Simpson is more of a wiseass than a badass. Really, he's just wise. He isn't mad enough for a takedown or perturbed enough to pose a real threat to any established Music City system. He didn't put those records out by himself as a revolt, he says; it just seemed easier than asking someone else to do it.
He's a married 36-year-old and a new father. Those conditions, it seems, have helped morph what once might have been antagonism into a wide-angle observational resolve. Metamodern Sounds is too much an expression of self to take a stand against anything, too personal and peculiar to be concerned so much with what others deem acceptable. That's the core of its genius.
Born in Kentucky, Simpson actually lives close to Nashville now; when asked how he likes being near the country hub, he returns to some variation on the simple refrain "We try not to go there too much."
His deliberate avoidance of a city that won't really have him, anyway, is the heart of Metamodern Sounds, a nine-track trip not through the ideas or experiences that Simpson hates but instead through those that interest him. During the swiveling Bakersfield homage "Life of Sin," for instance, he nods to the woman who broke his heart and haunts his dreams: "It's her I have to thank for all my songs." At another point, he wakes to find that "my baby was gone." He uses it not as an excuse to chastise her or pity himself, but instead as the reason to hit the road in his rig, to find "the end of that long white line." The conundrum begets the quest.
Throughout Metamodern, Simpson takes care never to criticize anyone in particular; he focuses instead on systems or situations and how to cut them loose. He understands that complaints are only constructive if they precede a solution. Metamodern is full of them.
Metamodern's second-longest track is a gorgeous country-soul cover of "The Promise," the 1988 synth-pop hit by short-lived British duo When in Rome. The strings glide beneath the guarded beat and the sharp guitar, as though guided by the collective hands of Pops Staples and Phil Spector. It's intentionally non-subversive, the mature move of a musician too comfortable with what he likes to tell you that what you like is wrong. He takes his time with it, makes it his own; just as he says he knows country fans will balk whenever he talks about the electronic music he loves, he offers a preemptive defense.
Tellingly, in "Turtles (All the Way Down)," he cycles through and discards the gods and drugs he's tried—in chronological order, Jesus, Satan, Buddha, marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT—to conclude "Love's the only thing that ever saved my life."
This isn't some tossed-off end-rhyme, either. For Simpson, that new-age admission has become a credo, even if it's not necessarily fodder for clickbait headlines. Unlike his fan Shooter Jennings, who once called an album Put the "O" Back in Country, eliciting mere reactions isn't his endgame.
"I wanted to make a social consciousness album about love," he told NPR in May. "I used to be a pretty negative, angry, self-destructive human being, and once you get to the root of why those things are taking place, it helps you understand a little bit more about things you see on the news every night. I guess all I was trying to say with the record is just we should be nice to each other."
Hey, there's a rebellious idea.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cosmic rift"