The cosmic cowboy of the digital age, Sturgill Simpson, required just 11 months to release his first two albums, the old-fashioned High Top Mountain and its far-out follow-up, The Metamodern Sounds of Country Music. “I’m 35 years old, but I feel like I’m just starting my career,” the Kentucky native says over the phone from his adopted home in Nashville. “The mechanics of this business can’t move fast enough.” Nashville may seem a funny place for Simpson to live, since his music’s hard-won hillbilly lope can feel like a disgruntled reaction to the glitzy country music industry, but the setting’s also just right: here’s a man who understands the power of tradition, and who’s livening things up from the inside.
The son of a secretary and an undercover narcotics officer, Simpson grew up watching the country variety show Hee-Haw with his uncle, who’d “point out the guys he thought were better musicians and the ones he thought were pretenders holding the guitar as a prop.” After graduating high school (“barely”), Simpson served in the military and worked for the railroad, but he was always writing music and honing his burly Appalachian howl, which slurs some words and fires out others like rally-cries in a barroom brawl. Simpson credits his newfound career to his longtime wife. “I was playing at home,” he remembers, “and she said, ‘You don’t exactly suck at this. You should know that you tried before you wake up at 45 and I’m stuck with your ass all miserable.’”
On 2013’s self-funded and self-released High Top Mountain, Simpson revived a tough, downtrodden style that last reined in the ’70s, garnering easy comparisons to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. The lead track, “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean,” shows he’s after more than nostalgia, though. He describes a shallow label man asking him to sing a little bit more clear… about outlaws and the way things used to be, then, in his born-outsider voice, counters, Well, the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done was give a good woman a ring. There’s a lot going on—an artist deftly rebelling against the image of a rebel, and unexpectedly doing so by portraying traditional marriage as revolutionary—but one thing’s for certain: Simpson’s after something more than a paycheck.
His target seems to be a truth beneath the surface—whether that requires taking a good look at his chosen genre, or life itself. The most bizarrely affecting song on The Metamodern Sounds of Country Music is a rendition of When in Rome’s “The Promise,” that cliché new wave hit last heard in Napoleon Dynamite, here desperately sung till Simpson’s voice croaks. His version sounds older than the 1988 original, more elemental, with a straightforward, acoustic swing that’s naturally suited for heartbreak. The cover seems to say: country is where honest expression belongs, and where it always has. In keeping with Simpson’s truth-seeking, Metamodern is also dotted with references to psychedelic drugs. On “Turtles All the Way Down,” he sings, Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT/ They all changed the way I see/ But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life. It’s hard not to think of his wife, here, or his father, the drug cop. In Simpson’s music, like a psychedelic experience, past, present and future harmoniously intertwine. The world will spin round, then come back again. On the phone, he tells me he’s soon to have a child, and his thoughts turn to the next generation. “The kids today…” Simpson says, then stops himself. “I hear this all the time: ‘Man, I fucking hate country music, but I love what you’re doing.’ I hate country music too, these days, at least what they’re calling it.”