Author: Dan McKittrick
In my escapades into the world of people’s musical tastes, it seems like few genres inspire more strong opinions than modern country. There are those who will stand by it until their dying day, but most of the people whose musical opinion I trust absolutely hate anything to do with it. Honestly, I would agree with them for the most part. Turn on any country station, and a lot of the music seems overly similar. All the songs have the twangy sameness featuring the stereotyped themes of trucks, fishing, and the good ol’ days. But Sturgill Simpson is different. A 39 year old Kentucky native, Simpson has released only three albums, starting in 2013. Listening to Sturgill, you get the feel of a man who respects county for what it is, but is trying to push it in so many new directions he makes it something all his own. His most recent album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is an excellent showcase of an artist making a truly phenomenal series of work out of a largely overlooked area of music. This album went on to win Best County Album at the 59th Grammy Awards, with a nomination for Album of the Year. While still retaining the trademark twang and slide guitar off many country artists, Sturgill Simpson is striving to push the genera in new and interesting direction with “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.
With knowledge of his previous albums, a listener may feel they know what to expect from “A Sailor’s guide to Earth”. His first albums “High Top Mountain”, released in 2013, and “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”, released in 2014, share a lot in common with traditional country, in terms of instrumentation and musical style. Where these previous albums (and all of his music) stands out, is in the lyrics. From suicide to the destruction of Appalachia at the hands of coal mining, the topics of Simpson’s tracks possess far more substance than the familiar stories of getting drunk and farming of popular country. The song Some Days off his first album even goes out of its way to poke fun at the monotony of country today.
The opening track off “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”, Welcome to earth, starts as a slow and soulful balad about his son and the love for his family but then makes a surprisingly upbeat turn that heavily features horn rifts, something almost never seen in country. Giving brass the spotlight and making such complex key and tempo changes already shows Simpson trying something new, even compared to his previous works. Later, his track In Bloom consists of a cover of the familiar Nirvana song. One may think that a country rendition of an iconic grunge tune would be terrible, but Sturgill does a surprisingly good job. Even the fact that he attempted such a crossover shows that he’s thinking outside the box of county’s easily clichéd genera. Later on, we get a little more of his slower, more traditional side that we can see in in his previous albums with the tracks Oh Sarah and Breakers Roar. My favorite track off the album, Keep it Between the Lines opens with horns and leads into Sturgill’s twangy, sultry voice. Like most of his pieces, the track does a great job of exhibiting common musical themes of country while keeping the listeners interest with his never-boring vocals. The album finishes strongly with the loud and fast paced track Call to Arms, which again makes good use of horn, at times drawing to mind an almost big-band feel.
If you (like myself) have a certain prejudice towards modern country, I would highly recommend that you listen to “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” and other works by Sturgill Simpson. It’s an excellent album and I can’t wait to see what he continues to make in the coming years.