artwork and article by David Pemberton
There was this time in the distant past when Country music was good. Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn hummed ballads about faith and loss and family and, on occasion, cocaine. It was all produced with this universal grit that could strum on any heartstring. When Cash croons “On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned. 'Cause there's something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone,” or when Loretta Lynn sings, defiantly, “Just stay out there on the town and see what you can find. ‘Cause if you want that kind of love, well, you don't need none of mine,” well—dammit—you feel something.
I remember buying “Live, from Folsom Prison,” when I was a kid. I was young and living in Seattle and listening to anything that Sub Pop put out, but this record was different and unmistakably genuine, and it remained the only Country album in my collection for over a decade. I took it with me everywhere.
I spent all of 2014 working as a freelance writer in Nashville, TN. It was fun and it was romantic but—for the most part—it paid next to nothing. My friends and I would drink in my apartment to save money, staying up late and listening to records in between smoke breaks. I’d befriended this local musician named John Davey, and he’d show up every once in awhile with a handful of LPs. There was this one evening, somewhere between our eighth and ninth cigarette, when John pulled “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” out of his bag.
This deep twang seeped out from the speakers like some kind of incantation. “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in. Met the devil in Seattle, and spent nine months inside the lion’s den.” John let out a long, relaxed sigh and then, almost on cue, started singing with the record. “Met buddha yet another time, and he showed me a glowing light within. But I swear that God is there, every time I glare into the eyes of my best friend.”
Very rarely has a song captured me so quickly. I asked John who in the hell we were listening to. It was the first time I had ever heard the name Sturgill Simpson.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Simpson claims a Southern pedigree that gave him little choice but to be a Country singer. His father was a state policeman working in undercover narcotics and his mother was a secretary who came from a family of coal miners. He started a bluegrass band before leaving music to work on the railroad. Eventually he moved to Nashville with his wife and recorded “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” for just under $4,000.00.
A biography that could have been written by Flannery O’Connor.
The first song on the album, “Turtles All the Way Down,” plays like some long forgotten Country standard. It’s true to form, with a propelling rhythm and a lyrical accent that could only come from the South. The lyrics, on the other hand, are at once bastardized and legitimate.
When Cash sang “I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” he was referencing something that has always been at the root of Country music: religion. And that’s what I find so clever—so faithful—about Simpson’s lyrics. The song opens with “I saw Jesus...” which, let’s be honest, is in one shape or form the opening pitch for 90% of Country music. “Met the devil in Seattle...” Ok, sure, many Country stars sing about battling the demons of drugs and women and alcohol, so this is a great way to keep the song going. “Met buddha yet another time, and he showed me a glowing light within.”
Goddamn that’s good writing.
A Country song that mentions Buddha, or, perhaps even more surprisingly, hints at universalism, runs the risk of being built on affectation. The description sounds like parody, a joke, a bit on some late night talk show. ...But it’s not. No, when Simpson sings “I swear that God is there, every time I glare into the eyes of my best friend,” it’s as genuine and as valid as when Loretta Lynn asked for that old time religion.
Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down” is seeking, it’s searching, and like the Country standards that birthed it, it finds revelation. “So don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes, or fairy tales of blood and wine, it’s turtles all the way down the line.”
A fairy tale of blood and wine is a pretty pointed reference to the New Testament. Coupled with “turtles all the way down the line” and it’s easy to understand what Simpson is trying to say.
That bit about the turtles is referencing Bertrand Russell. In several lectures, Russell told a story about speaking with an old woman who told him that the world was set on the back of a huge turtle. When he asked her what was beneath the turtle, she told him it was an even larger turtle. And so he asks what was beneath that turtle, and the woman told him that it was an even larger turtle. In fact, she said, it’s turtles, turtles, turtles all the way.
I love old people.
The story, almost like a parable, is this kind of simple explanation against religion. If the world rests on the backs of a turtle, then what does the turtle stand on? If everything came from God then where did God come from?
Simpson is making it very clear that his brand of Country music is defiant. If you haven’t noticed, we’ve spent this whole time talking about one song, and there’s a reason for it. “Turtles All the Way Down” is one hell of an opening swing, and it’s too clever not to be deliberate. It could be read as a manifesto, or at the very least a declaration. Simpson makes it clear that he’s fully embraced his Country roots while updating its cultural aesthetic.
The album is called “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” after all.
Sturgill Simpson is making the Country music that the world needs. You can hear that he loves it in every song, but also that he knows what it can become. He works within its boundaries while artfully and purposefully rejecting the negative culture that often promotes it. He is an outlaw to—more than anything—his own genre.
Simpson takes an old country sensibility, singing about loss and pain and wandering, and expands it with this updated and modern worldview that—no joke—might actually save Country music. If the genre can maintain authenticity while opening itself to new ideas and themes and voices, then it will evolve and change and grow and remain relevant. Somewhere along the way Country music lost its direction, but with artists like Sturgill Simpson, it just might live on. I guess that makes Simpson some kind of messiah.