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 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 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.”