Since Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard (RIP), and Kris Kristofferson decided to step out of the shackles of expectation demanded of them by their major label deals—you record what they tell you to record, even if the songs sound like gum commercials—there’s been an easy archetype in country music: the Outlaw. The performer who raises his bottle of Jack and his middle digit to the overlords of the Nashville sound, and who records whatever the fuck he wants to record (don’t let the “he” fool you; Jessi Colter was more of an outlaw than Waylon in a lot of ways). That might be an album of standards, and it might be an album of duets with their partner, and it might be albums built around some concept involving Juarez, Mexico, but none of that mattered; it was the album that the performer wanted to make, fuck everything else.
But that archetype is a whale to live up to. In the ‘10s, it’s been a rotating cast of artists’ cross to bear; the “the person SAVING country music” press cycle fodder, the ill-advised move by music critics to ignore or demean the music that actually means something to people in Middle America. Sure, Chris Stapleton might be “better” than Thomas Rhett, but he still had fewer country radio hits, and he probably cashed as big of a check for writing “Crash and Burn” for Rhett than he did from Traveller. Margo Price had to sign to Jack White’s label, which lead to her receiving a lot of press about how she’s outside—and, as implied, somehow better—than stuff like Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert or Maddie & Tae (whose “Girl in a Country Song” actually took on Nashville misogyny from the inside; it got played on country radio, not just inside indie record stores).
The person who has been nailed to the cross of “Real Country” most frequently the last three years, however, has been Sturgill Simpson, maker of this week’s Album of the Week, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. For a class of indie listener, Simpson is what they most want out of country music in 2016: he makes albums that sound like 1972, he makes songs about taking acid, and he doesn’t look like Florida Georgia Line. After Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, all Sturgill would have had to do for Sailor’s is show up, make another album of Waylon B-Sides, and he’d get the same kind of press and same kind of SAVIOR! coverage he got last time. He could have repeated the cycle forever, and I’m fairly certain that’s what his major label—he got signed to Atlantic after Metamodern blew up—was expecting. It would have been a fine record, and maybe even a great one.
Self-produced for the first time—he let his prior producer, and alt country wunderkind Dave Cobb sit this one out—Simpson set out to match Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, which are revered by true heads of country. Elvis may have been forced by the Colonel to record saccharine stuff at the end, but in live specials and shows, his band was fucking ferocious; a tightly wound unit that breathed new life into Elvis’ catalog. For his own TCB, Simpson has organ player Bobby Emmett, incredible axe-man Laur Joamets, and he drafted the Dap-Kings to add horn lines on a variety of songs. Album closer—and war protest—“Call to Arms” is a song I can’t wait to hear over a barbecue pit with 19 domestic brews in my stomach; a ripping, soulful blast that is going to dominate every other song in Simpson’s songbook when he tours Sailor’s this year.
The main arc of the album isn’t just the new sound Simpson gets to; it’s the story arc of a sailor teaching his son about life, and love, and drugs, and violence. The kid Simpson mentions on “You Can Have the Crown”—“Every time the wife talks, a baby gets mentioned/ I’m so broke I can’t pay attention/ Lord how it tears me up to see her cry”—was born after Metamodern came out, and now Sturgill is here doling out advice to him, telling him not to knock over mailboxes, the dangers of getting upselled, telling him what it’s like to travel the world from “inside a bar” in the Navy, telling him to take time to think through his decisions. It’s the kind of album that makes you think fatherhood must be the most transcendent experience ever—“the greatest love I’ve ever known,” Simpson sings on “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).”
In case my enthusiasm for this wasn’t evident, as far as I’m concerned, this is one of the top three albums to come out this year. I don’t imagine much will be able to dethrone it for me; what can I say, I’m a mark for soul-country albums about being a dad. The songs run a more varied tone here than on any Sturgill album till this one—I made it this far without mentioning the bare, soft cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”—and for the fact that he just side-stepped every expectation of him to deliver something so great and unexpected. Get yourself to this record post haste. It’s out on Friday, but you can stream it at NPR.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.