Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
A simple and smart-alecky assessment could be that singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson ran out of beer before he ran out of herb and converted an empty Bud can into a bong and then wrote his newest album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.”
That assessment would be simple and smart alecky – don’t say I didn’t tell you so – but may serve as a clever hook into a deeper artistic motivation for the newest darling guitar strummer among those who think country music needs a Savior.
There was no attempt to contact Simpson for this commentary on his latest album released in May. The reason for that is I would have screwed up and mentioned he is being called the Savior of country music, and word in the music media is that HE REALLY DESPISES that description. That’s understandable. A savior label can be faddish, and, well, frankly, the life cycles of saviors on earth don’t end well. Country music saviors make for nervous Nashville Pharisees.
Simpson, 35, preaches that he isn’t keen to be anybody’s savior. Like a savior, he professes to not be scared of the establishment. Of his newest album, he has said it is a “country record that is going to piss off most country fans.” Or maybe not. I’ve been a closet old-school country music fan from the first time I heard Mr. Cash sing that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Simpson’s record doesn’t piss me off.
Indeed, this new album may appeal only to a limited audience. Simpson’s lyrics and sounds on Metamodern are hard to categorize. If the chocolate of 1975 Nashville crashed into the peanut butter of 2014 Wakarusa we’d get this delicious little cup of Sturgill Simpson and this collection of words from the song, “Turtles All the Way Down”:
“There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain
Tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brain
Some say you might go crazy but then again it might make you go sane.”
Dude, where’s my guitar?
It could be that Waylon snuck off to Woodstock and hooked up with an LSD queen who moved back home to Kentucky. Simpson, this new yet old face of the new sound of the old country “outlaws,” was born in Jackson, Ky.
He up and joined the Navy and spent some time in Japan before moving back to Kentucky. His first try at Nashville didn’t go well, so he ended up working in Salt Lake City in an intermodal train yard. Seriously. He’s journeyed from backwoods Kentucky to a sailor in Japan to picking a few songs and emptying a lot more bottles in Nashville to switching trains in Utah to get his mind squared away.
“Well, it was very physical and element-exposed. But you know, Salt Lake is probably one of the better kept secrets of the United States,” Simpson said in this NPR interview. “It's absolutely beautiful, and the valley sits between two gorgeous mountain ranges. And it really was a great thing for me because I kind of threw myself into the job and found a very clear state, and sobriety, for the first time. And quiet.”
It’s a safe bet Simpson will not find savior favor with the country music fans addicted to the soul-cancer stuff now produced by Nashville that has a lot of similarities with the stuff typically delivered by contractions of the large intestine.
This album also will be tough to swallow for folks who like the old school sound but have hangups about the use of foul language or suggestions of an alternative way to find inner peace and joy and love and all those other silly hippie emotions. To wit, another line in “Turtles” provides this introspection.
“Every time I take a look inside inside that old and fabled book
I'm blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky
Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT they all changed the way I see
But love's the only thing that ever saved my life.”
He’s not talking here about any books in the Harry Potter series.
One may be forgiven – figuratively not biblically – in assuming that Simpson agrees Jesus saves, but would counter argue that a joint will free your mind from the need for the numerous incarnations of narrow religious rules. To that point, a Rolling Stone article tells a story of Simpson being verbally accosted by a concert goer mad at Simpson for attempting to spread “Gnostic beliefs.”
"Honestly, the conversation was so weird that I had to go out and look on Wikipedia in the van after the show to really understand what Gnostics believe," he said in the Rolling Stone story. "And they do think that we're all remnants of stardust from the one Divine that have been trapped in these physical bodies."
But he throws a bone to the Lord R. God and his flock with “A little Light.”
“Gotta walk that road all the way to Heaven
Gotta walk that road until the dawn
Gotta walk that road all night
All you need is a little light
And the closer you get the brighter it turns on.”
The diehard Americana crowd and 1970s-era rebels who connect frequently with a six-pack of Coors Light and that inner redneck who has seen enough to live and let live will get stupid happy with Sturgill. But it’s doubtful those 17 people will be enough to propel album sales to hoped-for levels.
Simpson’s been labeled a bluegrass singer, a country music singer-songwriter and a honky tonker. Not being a certified or sanctified documenter of the American music scene, I’ll avoid the eventual embarrassment of applying a single moniker to Simpson. But he damn sure is different. The songs on “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” alternate between soothing, foot-tapping, thought-provoking and this-sounds-twangyfunky-and-would-probably-bend-my-mind-around-itself-if-I-were-stoned-and-in-possession-of-a-lava-lamp.
Such is the case with “It Ain’t All Flowers.” The last two minutes of the song is from a parallel universe and used by Stanley Kubrick – may he rest in peace if he were also dead in this other universe – in the opening scenes of this different-universe movie about an enlightened group of stoners who drop out of seminary, move to Haight-Ashbury and just sit around digging on old-school country music.
“I’ve been reading about the idea of cyclical lives — it matches up to the idea of string theory and a multiverse,” Simpson told the Washington Post. “So I wanted to write a record about that instead of another song about broken hearts and drinking.”
Continuing, according to the Washington Post story, Simpson said of his Metamodern work: “The overall theme is probably love, to be cheesy about it. You spend all this time reading or thinking or praying or searching or exploring. Maybe there’s an Omega Point of love. … And if not, screw it. Just be nice to people.”
Screw it. Just be nice to people.
Hmmmm. Seems like there was once this Jewish fella born in Bethlehem who had a similar simple notion.
Let’s hope Simpson’s brand of country religion doesn’t leave him with too heavy a cross to bear.