Sturgill Simpson has always seemed to struggle. He would prefer being listened to as opposed to just being heard. The country music industry hailed his breakthrough album, 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” as a welcome throwback to the days of the “outlaw country” sound. At the time, country music was going through an identity crisis. Posers played 1980’s arena rock and passed it off under the guise of “bro country.” Nashville’s Music Row overlooked the impure form of the sound (and lack of talent) for the reward of reaching a wider audience. This approach increased record sales and profits. But another by-product of this marketing strategy was ignoring genuinely talented artists like Simpson.
Trying only to take credit for “Metamodern” after its success, the country music establishment knew nothing about Simpson, the artist. Simpson had long since dismissed the “outlaw” moniker. In Sunday Valley (Simpson’s prior band), he sang, “Well, the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done/Was give a good woman a ring.” “Metamodern’s” countrippy sound was about Simpson’s struggles with music, substance abuse, and the search for enlightenment. The recording was not an ode to Waylon, Willie, and Kris.
While Simpson’s disdain for Nashville probably has deeper roots, the visibility provided by “Metamodern’s” universal success gave him a public forum. In 2016 he called out the country music industry for its hypocrisy. In his social media diatribe, he cited a fellow musician, Jason Isbell, who was also treated mainly as an outsider. (Extremely talented and a brilliant songwriter, Isbell’s ostracization was due in part to his self-destruction at the hands of drugs and alcohol. Issues from which he is now successfully recovering.) Leading Isbell to respond, “I don’t know what [Simpson] said, but I agree 100%.”
Despite his penchant for irascibility around all things music industry Simpson is a multi-generational talent. Music Row still came calling. Simpson signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records. Not since Gregg Allman’s marraige to Cher has any union’s demise been so predictable. Simpson went from outlaw to Diva. He delayed the release of the album for two years. Ultimately holding the release hostage until Atlantic agreed to front an additional $1 million for an accompanying Japanese anime full-length video.
When “Sound and Fury” was finally released in September 2019, the album was a “White Album” caliber masterpiece of rock, techno, dance, rockabilly, and blues. The track “Make Art Not Friends” summed up the overall message. “This town’s getting crowded/Truth’s been shrouded/Think it’s time to change up the sound.” But the absence of a single country lick was just the beginning. “I love saying “No” to all the “Yes” men/Just to see the look on their face/I love how everybody knows what’s best/But nobody knows their place.”
Atlantic Records looked foolish. Despite Simpson’s consistent irreverence, Music Row still felt betrayed. But music fans rejoiced in the melody and the message. In the spring, Simpson embarked on a sold-out arena victory tour, seemingly having won the war. We all know what happened next . . . COVID. Simpson refocused his efforts, agreeing to release two new albums if fans helped him raise $1 million for charity.
He next appeared publicly on June 5, streaming a benefit concert from the Ryman auditorium. Looking fit but still sounding a little angry, he announced that he had negotiated his release from Atlantic’s golden handcuffs. Something he considered no small feat. He also revealed that his only real musical muse was bluegrass. From now on, he intended only to pursue that passion. With a crack band of bluegrass players, he spent an hour whipping through previously released but now reworked pieces.
Simpson followed up the concert by self-releasing with little fanfare, “Cuttin’ Grass – Vol.1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) on October 16. On December 10, again with no advance notice, he dropped “Cuttin’ – Grass Vol 2 (The Cowboy Arms Sessions). The album opens with two tracks from 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” A hell of a hoe-down version of “Call to Arms” followed by the jangly “Brace for Impact.” The latter song shines while the dizzying banjo gleams and glints. Clearly, Simpson wasn’t lying when he said he always envisioned his music as bluegrass.
“Oh Sarah” with the vocals high in the mix over an intricate but delicate mix of fiddle, guitar, and banjo, is timeless. The ballad “Hobo Cartoon,” accompanied by just a guitar and fiddle, tells the story of simpler times. The album also keeps the psychedelic trait Simpson infused into his electric recordings. The lost art of the banjo replacing the lead guitar.
Ironically, sounds that stood out in their initial recordings don’t quite translate here. “Keep it Between the Lines” a soulful cautionary tale on “Sailor’s” doesn’t quite have the same urgency on this take.
“Metamodern, Sailor’s and Fury” all benefitted from an underlying tension conveyed through the music. The narrative of the challenges he faced. The discourse between where Simpson was and where he wanted to go. Who he was and who he wanted to be. Indeed, for the listener and hopefully, for Simpson, everyone benefits from the complete lack of angst here.
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