The Importance of Being Sturgill
"Woke up today and decided to kill my ego. It ain't ever done me no good no how." -- Sturgill Simpson, "Just Let Go"
Do this job long enough and your hype detector becomes a highly tuned machine. Credible magazines canonize marginal artists among the world's most influential people and organizations induct undeserving musicians into their hallowed halls. Otherwise sane journalists insist on bestowing upon just fine songwriters the heavy mantle of "the next Bob Dylan." Hype, hype everywhere and not a drop to drink.
Some of that enthusiasm comes from the fact that music journalists often are music fans. To some extent we're all chasing the "I was there" feeling, that burst of joy (and bragging rights) that comes with catching artists before they take over the world. I saw R.E.M. play in a school gym and the Red Hot Chili Peppers play to a couple hundred people in a club. I was there, but for every story like those, I sat through dozens of just okay shows that don't really matter. It's hard not to become a little jaded about the hype.
So take a tip from a guy who is hard to impress: Find a Sturgill Simpson tour date close to you and get there while you can. In a few years you're going to be telling people that you were there.
Simpson already has a devoted following and two independent releases to his name (not to mention a Grammy nomination), but his recent signing to Atlantic Records all but guarantees that his career is about to skyrocket. Ever since the release of his sophomore effort, 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the cognoscenti have flagged the young singer-songwriter as the savior of country music.
As I write this, he's rocking the crowd at Coachella, but it was two nights ago (April 17) at Sacramento's Ace of Spades nightclub that I witnessed firsthand that Simpson is no over hyped, manufactured country star. Sturgill walked on stage in a plain shirt, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers -- no Stetson, no giant belt buckle, no ridiculous boots or bedazzled jeans.
"Woke up today and decided to kill my ego. It ain't ever done me no good no how."
Let's back up for a minute. The battle for the heart of country music has been going on in some ways since the day that Ralph Peer first recorded the angelic Carter Family and the devilish Jimmie Rodgers. By the '50s it looked like the family friendly flavor of country had won the war. A hybrid of pop and country known as "the Nashville sound" had taken over the genre, essentially crowding out the hillbilly roots of Rodgers and Hank Williams.
When the late '60s rolled around, the interest in roots music spread beyond folk and blues. Bands like the Byrds bridged the gap between psychedelia and country with albums like Sweethearts of the Rodeo, introducing a new generation to straight honky tonk, no radio-friendly chaser. That marriage of psychedelia and country survives in cuts like Simpson's "Turtles All the Way Down."
Toward the end of the '60s, the outlaws rolled in: Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, David Allen Coe. Down in Bakersfield, Calif., Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were doing their part to swing the pendulum back toward roots country, too. Fans were ready for a sound that wasn't slick and polished, and the devilish roots of Jimmie Rodgers became the modern sound of country music for the duration of the '70s.
Toward the end of that decade -- 1978, to be exact -- John Sturgill Simpson was born in Jackson, Ky., a town of 2,000 or so. His family later moved to nearby Versailles, which at even nearly triple the population was still a tiny town. Simpson lays it out in "Pan Bowl":
Simpson took up guitar as a grade schooler, but as he told NPR: "In eastern Kentucky, everybody plays music. It's never something you ever think for a second growing up, 'Oh, I can do this for a living.'
While he was growing up so was country radio. Outlaw country was out again, replaced by pop superstars pretending to be country artists and country artists pretending to be pop superstars. Sincerity was replaced by a formula so predictable that pieces of songs were as interchangeable as children's building blocks.
Simpson did a stint in the Navy, got married, took a stab at Nashville and then moved to Salt Lake City, where he worked on the railroad. When his grandfather grew ill, the couple moved back to Kentucky to help out. After another stint in the train yard, his wife convinced him to give music one more shot. The result was his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain.
Keep in mind that the bio is Simpson's but the recitation of "real" country versus the plastic sound of pop country is mine, not that I'm the first to go down this road. Simpson told Rolling Stone:
A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk s--- about modern country, and I just don't have anything to really offer there ... 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.
Simpson works in country modalities the way visual artists work with specific media. You and I might both use watercolors, but aside from the properties of the paint our work may not bear any other similarities. So it is with reverb, chorus, acoustic and slide guitars.
Simpson's canvas is much bigger than trucks, booze and broken hearts. He deploys his tools in any number of ways, even turning When in Rome's 1987 pop hit "The Promise" into an achingly beautiful country ballad.
I caught Simpson's tour manager after the gig. "Hey, can you get me a copy of the set list?" I asked.
"Doesn't have one, never does," he said. "Well, once. When we did Austin City Limits he had to stick to a set list, but that's the only time."
"Man, what a great set," I said.
"Yeah," the tour manager replied. "I was retired for 20 years, and then I heard him. Can you believe he did this all on his own? No label support, nothing."
Musical trends are cyclical. Maybe it was just time for pop country to turn outlaw again, and Sturgill Simpson just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or maybe he's the most important voice in a much needed move back to our roots.
You'll never hear that from him, though. That's just writers' hype, and besides: He killed the ego that never done him no good no how.