The artist that got me started on this column was Sturgill Simpson, thanks to a story I did with him for the magazine a few issue’s back. I’m pretty sure he’s the first country artist we ever featured in print—merited, in his case, by a take on the genre that seemed totally renegade to where country sits in popular culture now, and wholly in line with its original principles. He writes heartfelt songs that are funny and sound timeless, but he also sings about cosmic shit like “god, drugs and lizards aliens,” as NPR summed up his more esoteric subject matter in a recent headline. He’s a true outlaw in a world of wannabes, and has been deservedly lauded as such, ascending just last night to Letterman.
Tonight, he’s putting on back-to-back headlining shows at Joe’s Pub in New York. In honor of it all, I’ve prepared the full, lightly edited, hour-long interview we did for the original The FADER piece, recorded in the weeks leading up to the release of his breakout sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Topics include: Nashville bigwigs, DMT, undercover cops, lizard aliens and a whole lot more. Seemed only right to let this bad boy loose. Buy Sturgill Simpson’s music here, straight from the man himself, and dive in.
Where’d you grow up? Originally, I’m from a little town in southeast Kentucky called Jackson. My mother was a secretary and my father was a state policeman. He mostly worked undercover narcotics in Eastern Kentucky. His work came to a head and directly facilitated the move to Central Kentucky, to a town called Versailles, where I graduated high school. For all intents and purposes, it felt like I’d had two childhoods, even when I was there. In the summers, I was always back in eastern Kentucky with my grandparents. It felt like my mom and I went home about every weekend. In my heart I guess I’m from Appalachia.
Wait, why’d you have to move? Well, fortunately I was too young to remember most of the heavier things. There was a lot of stress obviously, working as an undercover narc in eastern Kentucky. As you can imagine, it’s not the safest line of work. It put a lot of strain on my parents directly and I think my mother reached her breaking point. She said, “It’s either the job or all this,” so he got a transfer. He worked undercover a little while in central Kentucky, then he got a more stable daytime position, which put all that stuff to rest. It was tumultuous, the stuff I do remember, but I blocked out most of it probably.
Were there music people in the family? Both of my grandfathers, really, but different sides of the spectrum. My maternal grandfather was heavily influential, along with my mother’s brother, his son, just in terms of records I was exposed to at a young age and shows like Hee-Haw. He would critique the guys that were on there and would show me the ones he thought were better musicians and the ones he thought were holding the guitar as a prop and pretending. Then my dad’s father was a big bluegrass lover. He played the mandolin and exposed me to a lot of that at probably too young an age. Your palette’s not ready to absorb all of that yet. Like every other teenager, once I discovered marijuana and Led Zeppelin, you go down that road for a minute. Somewhere around my early 20s I came back full circle, and that’s where my head lived at ever since.
Full circle back to country, you mean? Just being completely lost and drifting and not really having that touchstone. I heard an old Stanley Brothers song, and it just floored me, and I had to pull the car over. It’s just a connection. A lot of that music, other than what’s retained on those old records, is gone, even today. Just like my hometown is still there, too, but very much not the same as it was when I was a child.
When did you start making music? I’ve always played. I got my first guitar when I was 8 or 9. It was never anything that was encouraged or anything that I thought I could do for a living. Everybody back home plays music; it’s what you do when you’re done with your real job. After high school, which I barely graduated, I made some bad decisions which limited my options. I went into the military for a very short while and did some odd jobs through my 20s. I had a stint with the railroad for about four years. There were definitely a lot of times where I wasn’t playing music at all. I just put it down. Inevitably I always get pulled back to it. It’s hard to say which of the periods of inactivity or the periods I was playing were the most self-destructive, but the darkest times were when I wasn’t playing and didn’t have that emotional outlet.
My wife was a big catalyst for the move to Nashville. I had started really seriously writing for the first time in years and playing at home a bit. She said “You don’t exactly suck at this. You should know that you tried before you wake up at 40 and I’m stuck with your ass all miserable.” We packed it in and went to Nashville going on three and a half or four years ago. It’s weird. You get here and you have to get the lay of the land. It really is a hustle, man. I just decided I’m not going to play that game and go out to the bars and do the networking and shake hands while looking over people’s shoulders. It makes me sick. I told myself that I’m not going to compromise because I’ve made so many bad decisions and mistakes in my life. There’s really no room for bullshit. I have to wake up and be proud of this someday and more importantly at least do one thing before I die that my family can be proud of. I just swallowed it up and said it’s going to be the hard road. So far it’s been very fortunate even on a small level. I put the album out last year on my own label. I didn’t have any money for a publicist, so it was just the Twitter-sphere and organic word of mouth. It’s still just getting out right now to be honest. Every month it’s like High Top Mountain got released again, because more and more people are finding out about it.
What’s living in Nashville been like? In my heart and in my head and in my home, I’m very happy here. I never really leave the house. The only time I feel negative is when I do. Because there’s a lot of people coming here with very empty intentions. That tends to overshadow some of the most talented individuals I’ve ever seen in my entire life. A lot of my friends are my heroes man, but it breaks your heart because you know for whatever reason take your pick they’ve got a long road of struggle in front of them. I don’t expect any help from anybody here in town ever. I don’t ever want to wake up and find myself in a week of meeting about my haircut. I really want to make art. You can’t do that on a major label or even an indie label because it’s like, well are the hipsters going to like this? Even if you go the indie route, I hope you can play the cool card and hope some rock star wants to put his name on it and produce your record and then you get picked up by the indie label of the month. To me, that’s no more individualistic than going down to Warner Brothers and deciding what the single is going to be. You have all these people controlling your image. It’s always going to be the producer’s name above yours. The thought of getting bulldozed like that also scares me. I was really lucky to work with a guy named Dave Cobb on this last record. He’s just carving his name out in Nashville too. On High Top Mountain, I feel like there was a little more of his voice on it than I would like. We have a very close friendship and I’ve been honest with him about that. A producer figuring out an artist, they don’t know who you are either they’re just trying to help you make the best album you can. I can be kind of volatile and combative if I’m dead set on something, and he knows how to navigate that and use that to his advantage. I didn’t realize that at the time, but looking back I’m almost certain he was pissing me off on purpose to get a certain energy. But I love him. I’m very proud of what we did.
You make it seem like self-releasing is your only option. The only reason I wouldn’t is if somebody came along and said “We’re going to give you a bunch of money to make records and put them out, but we’re going to stay out of the way and let you do whatever you want.” You know as well as I do that’s not going to happen. The first record we were in there for about two weeks with all the session guys. I spent about 25 grand and spent the last year digging myself out. This record I recorded with my band in about four days for about $3,000. Rather do that than sit in the boardroom with somebody’s grandson that got handed their job and doesn’t know shit about music and doesn’t care about music and they’re going to tell me, “Here’s this record you made and we’re not concerned that you’re moving on or growing artistically, we’re going to wait 18 months to put this thing out. Then we might not even put it out, and if we do, you won’t have any say so in how it’s marketed.” I don’t want to ever find myself in this conversation.
Why was there such a short time between the releases? Man, I’m 35 years old. I feel like I’m just starting my career, but I’ve been writing for the past 15. The mechanics of this business just can’t move fast enough for me right now. I wish I had the money—I would have recorded three or four albums back to back, but it’s not practical or realistic right now. My manager thinks I’m running from the last one, but I’m not. I made a traditional country record. I wanted to make that statement and I felt like I did. I got the Waylon thing a lot, but it’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I certainly wasn’t trying to emulate him, but if that’s what people want to hear, I’ll take it. On the new one, I think I got my voice across a little bit more. The few people that have heard Metamodern have reacted as strongly and feel about it the way I do, and that means everything in the world to me. I didn’t have the desire to turn around and do that again. There’s some somewhat personal experience I’ve had in the past year. After you literally see the fabric of reality just rip apart in front of your face, it’s hard to go back to seeing drinking songs.
What do you mean, ripped the fabric of reality? It’s more of a subjective thing. I’m not one of those guys that sits around and scours blogs and obsesses about the state of country music. I love all kinds of music, but it just so happens that if I sit down with a guitar and open my voice to sing that’s what comes out. That doesn’t mean I ever have to put myself in that sort of self-invented prison of novelty where all I can sing about are these traditional themes. I’m into a lot of different stuff and that’s what came out. That’s where my head was. It might take some people a little by the wayside, or they may never get into it. There’ll be other people that come onboard for everybody that falls off. I can’t ever stop to think, “Oh gosh, maybe they won’t like it.” If I’m doing it myself I can do it all myself, so why wouldn’t I? In terms of subject matter and themes there’s all kinds of personal interest that I wanted to explore. At least to my knowledge no one else has under the guise of a country album. At the end of the day, I don’t have any interest in doing anything that’s already been done.
What do you mean by the word Metamodern? If you really want to be an outlaw today, you might as well print up T-shirts with unicorns and rainbows on them. The whole machismo bravado thing has to go away man. It’s so tired and postured. There’s a lot of bullshit. After my own experience in the past year playing the Opry—I am a purist and a traditionalist to a certain extent, but I do love country music, and if you want to talk about the intellectual aspect of it, it has to reinvent itself, it has to adapt. You go to the Opry and it’s this longstanding tradition, but I looked out at the crowd and it’s just this ocean of blue hair. The kids today, I hear this all the time: “Man, I fucking hate country music, but I love what you’re doing.” That says to me they’ve never heard country music, and if they did, they’d love it. It’s about as honest a form of American music as you’re going to find. I’m not trying to burn anything down, I’m just trying to give people what I’m not hearing or seeing anywhere myself: a different alternative, the possibility that it can be different than what you’re seeing. The metamodern idea… I read this guy… I read weird shit. This guy called Seth Abramson was talking about oscillation between naivety and our current culture’s love for nostalgia. It’s exactly what I see happening in Nashville right now. Everyone is just spinning their wheels trying to think of what’s next, but nobody’s got the balls to make the gamble so they keep spinning their thumbs and counting on the formula. It seems so self-destructive, they’re praying to a dying business model. I certainly love the sound of old records, but I don’t ever want to be a novelty niche thing and live in that world. It’s important to pay homage, but at the same time… They say “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The only way to fix it might be to break the fuck out of it.
What do you say to the people who say they hate country, but like you? I just smile and say, “Thank you man.” I’m never going to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t like or listen to. If you can go out and get up on a stage in a room full of strangers, even if you can connect with everyone in the room for just 60 seconds… I’ve got severe social anxiety man, I can never leave the house. Just to be able to connect with somebody like that. As opposed to if I sit at the bar with them over three beers, I’m going to have trouble thinking of three things to talk about. Or I’m going to go off on a self-absorbed tangent like I am right now. It means you’re sharing this whole experience the best way you can. Someone that says, “I hate country music but I love what you do”—I can relate to that guy. I hate country music too these days, at least what they’re calling it. Rather than focus on the negativity of that like so many people online seem to do, I tend to just push it completely out of my life like it doesn’t exist. That’s the best thing for me. Hopefully they’ll hear what we’re doing and it’ll convince them to go out and buy an old late-’60s Merle Haggard and the Strangers record. That’s the best compliment somebody could ever pay me.
What influences you as a songwriter? Everybody from the Carter family to Terrence McKenna. I’m all over the place. You have those autobiographical moments, but any song I write I try not to spend more than 20 minutes on it. This last record, there were a couple songs that were so conceptually based and steered the sonic view of what I wanted to accomplish because to represent some of the themes the textures and sounds were a very important factor. There were a couple books, specifically. There were a couple songs grounded pretty heavily in Tibetan Buddhism. I got interested in mystical states and shamanistic practices as an offshoot of that. I wanted a deeper understanding of reality and the universe. I went on a six month completely obsessive quantum physics phase and I was reading a lot of multiverse and string theory publications and drove my wife absolutely insane. She said, “You need to get this out of your system.” I said, “You’re right.” So I just wrote some fucking songs about it.
What got you into these uncommon approaches to understanding the world?Maybe I saw my window for the very last existential dilemma I’m allowed to have. Well I’m having a kid, so I can’t be a self absorbed artist anymore, better get it out of my system. The ideas of independent realms of energy and pure love where maybe your soul doesn’t go after you die until you fall into another vessel. I think that’s a fascinating concept and no more strange than some old man with a beard sitting on a cloud deciding every action you’ll make or won’t make. Or it’s as fascinating as the earth sitting on the back of a cosmic turtle as the Chinese and the Hopi and everyone else believed. I hate to talk about it too much because I don’t want to take away people’s own interpretations, but the record is about love and at some point you have to stop questioning everything or you’ll go fucking insane. I almost did. You just have to focus on the moment you’re in. I spent so much of my time living in the past or in the future. As a result, you either get depressed or overwhelming anxiety from one way or the other. The second you find out you’re bringing a child into the world everything hits pause. This very well may be the last album I make. A lot of times on the road I miss my wife terribly. She’s my best friend. The thought of being out there missing out on something even more special, the first eight or nine months of its life. I’m not sure how that’ll affect me. I can say that I tried and I did it honestly and my grandparents got to see me in the Opry. I made two records I can always be proud of. If I never go beyond this point, I can be okay with that. You can’t think about it, so I don’t.