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Sturgill Simpson’s Wide-Eyed Breakthrough

Read Our Listening Notes for ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

On April 27, 2021

Johnny Cash once said country music is “three chords and the truth,” which, provenance aside — who knows if it was Cash who said it first — is about as good a definition of the music that exists. But what that actually means is that the subject matter and songs are often straightforward, and even tipping into certainty. Johnny shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, Dolly asked Jolene not to take her man, Willie wrote about 10,000 songs about how he lost her and she’s never coming back. This is what made them great, that truth, that certitude that life sucks, or it’s great or your cheatin’ heart will make you weep one day. But taken to its extreme, there is often little room for uncertainty in country — and for popular American music in general, for that matter — no room for matters of the metaphysical.

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And that is the crux of the greatness of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and Sturgill Simpson writ large: like you and me, he’s someone just trying to figure it all out, who feels lost and unsure. Metamodern Sounds opens with “Turtles All The Way Down,” a song alluding to a metaphor for how the only certain thing in existence is that there is a cause for everything, but tracking the original cause is nay impossible — and it only gets headier and deeper from there. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is an album as a series of questions: Why does it seem like the lot in life for some people is suffering? What’s the point of all of this? Is making art still valuable if you spend your time woodshedding to no one? Do you work because you love it, or are you on a conveyor belt you can’t see and can’t control? If the point of musical stardom is a never-ending ride on the road, is it even something worth pining for?

Metamodern Sounds was the breakthrough album for Simpson, the album that would open the path for an onerous major-label deal, Grammy nominations for Best Album, anime films, arena tours and some of the most meaningful, impactful music to draw from the American songbook of the last 10 years. But before that could happen, he had to bottom out, quit music, work on the literal railroad and come back to Nashville in his mid-30s, full of uncertainty, but sure that his music would see him through.

Sturgill Simpson was born in Kentucky, raised by a secretary mother and a policeman father, and a close-knit Kentucky family that educated him in the sounds of bluegrass — Kentucky’s greatest export, alongside bourbon — and country music. He was always musically curious and playing music, but he didn’t see many ways out of Kentucky apart from the Navy, which he enlisted in when he graduated high school. He spent a few years in the Pacific, with stops in Seattle and Japan along the way. After leaving the Navy, he spent time as a server at an IHOP, before ending up back in Lexington, Kentucky, unsure of what to do next.

What was next was a group called Sunday Valley, which Sturgill formed with some local musicians in the early ’00s, before they moved to Nashville in 2004, with a CD-R in hand — copies of which sell for beaucoup bucks on Discogs — trying to make a go of being country stars. Instead, the band broke up, the entire experiment a “total bust,” in Sturgill’s words.

It’s here where you need to pause and consider what might have been different if Sturgill had been able to sell some songs, or make in-roads in 2004. Would it have been him instead of Dierks Bentley who popped up out of the bluegrass scene to become a pop-country star? Would he have been Eric Church before Eric Church? Who knows? But the failure to live up to Nashville’s standards, and having to bear a hasty retreat, is what he actually shares most with his outlaw country forebears: Willie didn’t lay down and try to get run over in any other city, and there’s a reason Merle spent his life trying to perfect the Bakersfield Sound instead.

Instead of trying to ply his trade in Kentucky, or some other small town, Simpson instead lit out for Utah, where he worked his way up at Union Pacific Railroad. He moved out with the woman who’d become his wife and mother to his children, and by all accounts, things were OK for a while: Simpson had a job with benefits and could play music at open-mics and write songs in his free time. But after a half-decade in railroads, his wife looked at him and said he’d be miserable in old age if he didn’t at least try to make songwriting his life, and encouraged him to reform Sunday Valley. The band workshopped and Simpson wrote a boatload of songs, eventually culminating in 2011’s To the Wind and On To Heaven, the group’s proper, southern-fried country-rock debut LP (another one you’d have to sell a nice moped to afford on Discogs). When one of the members didn’t want to quit his firefighting gig, Simpson disbanded the group, and moved to Nashville in 2012, to give it one last shot, with nothing to lose.

"'Metamodern Sounds' was the breakthrough album for Simpson, the album that would open the path for an onerous major-label deal, Grammy nominations for Best Album, anime films, arena tours and some of the most meaningful, impactful music to draw from the American songbook of the last 10 years."

Simpson’s debut LP, High Top Mountain, is often about the very act of trying to make a go at a music career. It opens with “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean,” a song about a possibly apocryphal meeting with a record industry man telling Simpson to sing clearer, and to make songs about outlaws and the good old days. And the album’s highlight is “You Can Have the Crown,” a spiritual kin of “Shotgun Willie,” a song about how hard it is to write songs, with Simpson imagining robbing banks as an alternative and wondering aloud if there’s a word that rhymes with “Bronco.” High Top Mountain was a modest success — it peaked at 31 on the country charts — but, crucially, it put Simpson out on the road, where he built his audience show-to-show, and his album moved hand-to-hand like a well-kept secret.

It was during the rarely pausing tour supporting High Top Mountain that Simpson started writing the songs that would become Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. He was spending a lot of his time driving from town-to-town, reading and missing home. During a week-long break from the road, he decided to hit the studio with his road band to cut what would end up being Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Recorded in five-and-a-half days for $4,000, Sturgill told Garden & Gun magazine that he felt like it was more rushed, and that he “worked harder” on High Top Mountain, but the album became a groundswell: Released less than a year after his debut, it kept him on the road, where he went from playing small clubs to theaters almost overnight. Inspired by Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and from all the Emerson, Hawking and Tibetan mythology Simpson was reading while on the road, it broke Simpson through to the likes of NPR, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and paved the road for everything that came in the years since.

But before we get there, there’s the nine songs of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. It opens with “Turtles All the Way Down,” perhaps the only country song ever to deal with what philosophers call the problem of infinite regress. It’s also the album’s most metaphysical; it recaps multiple drug experiences, meetings with buddhas, and reptile aliens, and God telling Sturgill to just try to have fun and not be awful in his time on Earth. It’s a cosmic country ballad, delivered with Sturgill’s rough-hewn, clear voice. “Turtles” transitions to “Life of Sin,” another Simpson song about the challenges of writing the song itself, amid a life of drug and booze-soaked existence. But instead of being worried that the sin will swallow him up, Simpson is instead aware that he’s keeping his “brain hazy to keep from going crazy,” which also makes it a song about why you’re doing drugs.

Writers and critics have made a lot, over the years, of similarities between Simpson and Waylon Jennings, an artist that Simpson says he hadn’t listened to all that seriously until the comparison kept coming up in his reviews. Some of that comparison is circumstance — Robby Turner, who played often with Jennings, plays on High Top Mountain — but often that comparison feels rooted in critics’ misunderstanding and lack of familiarity with Simpson’s true forebearer and acknowledged biggest influence: Merle Haggard. Merle was a guy who was mostly certain, but also, if you read into his songs, was a lost soul trying to figure it all out. Simpson remembers being introduced to the Hag via his grandfather, who rode around in his truck with Haggard 8-tracks in the deck, an education via the Okie from Muskogee and his paw paw.

Beyond the superficial similarities — they both love the railroads, as Merle often rode trains as a teenage delinquent — there’s a longing and searching that comes across in the music of both men that is unique to them. The best Merle Haggard songs are ones that long for some order, some clear delineation of meaning that will make all the suffering, strife and headaches worth it. What is “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” but a song about wondering if the running is going to lead to anything meaningful? And that’s the prevailing spiritual underpinning of Metamodern Sounds, too. Merle could have found a lot to relate to in a song like “Living the Dream,” a song about wondering if your dead-end job is how you’re meant to live your life, and wishing that the “circles on the paper don’t call back telling me to start today,” knowing that even the next job isn’t what you actually want to be doing. Simpson’s cover of Buford Abner’s “Long White Line” fits alongside Merle’s own perils of the endless road song, “White Line Fever.” There’s also a lot of Haggard in “It Ain’t All Flowers,” the album’s slow-burn closer, with the metaphysical thesis of the album: “Tired of feeling weighed down from carrying ’round all the pain that keeps me torn.”

It is in the searching of that pain that makes Metamodern Sounds so rewarding, so worthy of obsession. Like every classic album, it is like a Litmus test for how you’re feeling on each subsequent listen, each new spin revealing a new avenue of self-discovery or meaning. One listen, you might take the most from the tender paean to ego death of “Just Let Go,” and the next you might take how Simpson morphed an I Love The ’80s synth-pop one-hit wonder — When in Rome’s “The Promise” — and recast it as a standard worthy of Sinatra, deconstructing the cheese for what’s really a song of undying, dedicated devotion, delivering on the statement in “Turtles”: “Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” Your next listen, you might pull out the deconstructed idioms of “Voices,” or you might take the “all you need in your heart is love” simple, directness of “A Little Light.” Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, in its uncertainty and searching, leaves a world the listener can graft themselves into.

Eventually, more than a quarter-million listeners did just that. And, we hope, if you haven’t yet, you can now, too.

Metamodern Sounds eventually rose to No. 8 on the Billboard Country Chart, storming the very environs many people claimed it stood in direct opposition to. It’s sold more than a quarter-million copies, a huge number when you factor in that the album was self-released and self-financed via Thirty Tigers and Sturgill himself. But the ultimate story of Metamodern Sounds doesn’t end with the album itself: It might be more noted for the complete havoc the promotion of the album wreaked on Simpson’s psyche and family life. The 18-month meat grinder of performances and promotion behind the album meant that he had to watch his recently born son grow up via pictures from the road. That feeling of distance and complete exhaustion almost led Simpson to quit music, but he instead funneled it into A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album that drew upon his experience as a Navy sailor and the feeling that he needed to impart some wisdom on the child he was missing grow up due to providing for him on the road. That album was an unlikely mainstream breakthrough, garnered an Album of the Year nomination (he lost to Adele’s 25, an unlikely sentence to type about a country album with a Nirvana cover), and put him, ironically, back into the meat grinder of promotion and touring, which got filtered into Sound & Fury, its accompanying film, and led to an acrimonious split from his major label following that album’s release.

Seven of the nine songs on Metamodern fill out the tracklist of Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1, the first half of Simpson’s dual bluegrass reimagining of his catalog in 2020. And just as the words themselves allow you to hear what you’re feeling, these songs work in new contexts just as effectively; mandolins and fiddles can be tools of your metaphysical examination, too.

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Andrew Winistorfer

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.

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