Home Music Music News

The Fighting Side of Sturgill Simpson

After years of struggle, the country trailblazer has found success on his own terms. But he’s not letting Nashville off the hook.

After years of struggle, the country trailblazer has found success on his own terms. But he's not letting Nashville off the hook.

On a hot Nashville late-summer afternoon, 38-year-old Sturgill Simpson sits at a small table and looks me dead in the eye. We’re in the city’s Germantown section, in the writing room he shares with singer-songwriter John Prine. A pool table dominates the space. An antique jukebox stands silent. Down the hallway is the studio where last year Simpson cut his haunting album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in less than a week.

Simpson’s conversational currency is unfiltered sincerity. His humour is built on self-deprecation. “Rolling Stone is doing a long-form exposé on what an ass-hole I am,” he tells engineer David Ferguson, who drops in at one point. Months earlier, we’d met at a birthday dinner for Shooter Jennings, where Simpson’s intellectual range took me by surprise. Most country stars aren’t intimate with Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud – or, for that matter, Marvin Gaye’s most esoteric recordings.

Along with artists like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, Simpson has breathed new life into Americana music, heavily indebted to Seventies outlaw country as well as a wide range of other influences, including soul artists like Otis Redding and Bill Withers. But it was in the old-school outlaw tradition that Simpson recently caused a sensation by blasting the Academy of Country Music after it announced the “Merle Haggard Spirit Award”. Simpson accused the organisation and others of trying to “hitch their wagon to his name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them”.

“If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard,” Simpson wrote in a thousand-word Facebook post, “they should drop all the formulaic cannon-fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit, and start dedicating their programs to more actual country music.”

Simpson’s tirade hit Nashville like a tornado. Reactions varied from shock to outrage to avid support. Simpson predicted he’d be blackballed from the industry. “That’s perfectly fine with me,” he wrote later. “I’m not sure how you can blackball somebody you don’t acknowledge in the first place.”

Sturgill body
Left: Merle Haggard with Simpson last year. Right: Playing live in July.

Given the controversy you kicked up, do you have regrets?
None. My disgust was so strong I couldn’t hold back.

Disgust directed at what?
The idea of co-opting the names of dead legends for business purposes. The same way they did with Johnny Cash. They snubbed him on the American Recordings he did with Rick Rubin. Nashville also snubbed Loretta Lynn when Jack White produced Van Lear Rose. And everyone knows the story of how they ran Willie Nelson outta town back in the Seventies. Merle is the latest in a long line.

Tell me about your coal-mine roots.
I was born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. I was the first male in my mother’s family not to work the mines. Mum was a secretary, Dad was a state cop. We lived in a prefab house just off the highway. When I was in second grade, we moved to Versailles, just outside Lexington.

When did the music hit you?
My papaw got me to loving Merle. Hee Haw got me to loving Jerry Reed and Roy Clark. The only reason I own a black Gibson hollow-body today is because that’s the guitar Roy played.

So country came first for you.
But rock came roaring right after. In third grade, my older cousin ruined my life good and proper by sticking me in his room with one of those big tower stereos. I heard John Mayall’s “Beano” album, followed by Cream, Hendrix. From there I slipped down into the Chicago and Delta rabbit holes. I soon saw that the heart and soul of American music is the blues.

And Sixties soul?
My grandmother’s collection of 45s. Sam and Dave. Otis Redding. From Otis, I’ve surmised that there are only two kinds of music: bad music and soul music.

You were studious about music. But what about school?
Not a great student. My parents divorced when I was in seventh grade, and I numbed out. I worked at McDonald’s but saw a better opportunity selling pot and pills. I also chose to eat acid during my junior year while watching a replay of the Beatles at Shea Stadium. I saw Paul surrounded by a glowing purple aura. Tripping my balls off, I ran home in the rain, crawled into bed with my Walkman and cranked up Sgt. Pepper’s.

Did you graduate?
Barely. And only because Mum was on a first-name basis with my guidance counsellor. I got busted selling drugs my senior year and went to live with my dad. That same year, before graduation, I’d enlisted in the Navy.

Why the Navy?
Wanderlust. Aside from hearing the wrong kind of music too young, I also read the wrong books – like the novels of Jack Kerouac, who was a merchant marine. The result was an over-romanticised view of the world. I wanted to sail the Seven Seas.

What were your military years like?
Thrilling and monotonous. Thrilling to party in Tokyo, where I was out of control with women, drinking and fighting. But monotonous to be stationed on a frigate where I worked in the Combat Information Centre with top-secret clearance. Our job was to closely monitor shipping traffic and report incoming intelligence information.

So you became a cop, like your dad.
I guess you could say that. I was responsible, but I also saw shocking things in the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, that, as a teenager, shook me to my core. My worldview darkened. When I got out after three years, I hung around the Seattle area, a lost soul.

I seated tables at IHOP. Then I came home to Lexington in 1999 and experienced an epiphany: I was driving my pickup when Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” came on. I was transported to childhood. I’d re-discovered my musical heart, and I zeroed in on bluegrass. For the next four years, I immersed myself, from pre-World War II to its pinnacle in the Seventies. I studied the songs and bands of Ralph Stanley and the original masters.

That led you to form a bluegrass band?
Sunday Valley. Me, a drummer and bassist. We formed in 2004 and were strictly local heroes. We couldn’t travel be- cause the bass player had a great gig with the fire department. So I moved to Nashville. Lived in a shitty cinder-block apartment. And didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to hustle my music. [It] was a total bust.

So you gave up music?
Yes, and in 2006 moved to Salt Lake City, where for four years I worked at the railroad, working my way up to an operations manager. The money was good. Back in Lexington, I’d met my future wife, the woman who would become my muse. She came to Utah, where she saw I was drowning in a sea of dark nihilism. My grim attitude said that we’re all just floating around on this fucking mud ball, and someday you die, and it’s like you were never here. So who cares? “You care,” she said. She bought me a four-track and insisted, “You care about music. Pursue your passion.”

And that’s when things turned around?
That’s when we quit our jobs and moved back to Nashville. This time I had enough decent songs to put together my first album, High Top Mountain. It went nowhere. My second indie record, also self-financed, had more substance: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. I’d been reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead as well as Emerson’s essay on nature, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I took all these lofty ideas and dumbed them down to one simple message: love. But because I don’t write hits, I realised my career would be based on touring. In 2014, just after the birth of my son, I spent 18 months on the road, pushing Metamodern. I nearly quit.

Wasn’t that separation from your son the experience that led to the concept for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth?
The separation allowed me to see what I really wanted. I wanted to speak to my son. I used the sea as metaphor. The record is a love letter to my boy and my wife for having saved me from a life of despair.

What’s life like for you these days?
Touring behind Sailor’s Guide. I’m excited to be playing theatres. Happy not to be drinking. I’m a cooler person without it. I still smoke weed on the road, but only to kill the boredom.

Who of your contemporaries inspires you?
Fearless hip-hoppers like Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels and Chance. I thought D’Angelo’s record was criminally underrated. I’d like to spend a month at Frank Ocean’s house.

After the tour, what’s next?
Maybe I’ll do a dance record. Or maybe another song cycle, this time a love story from the Old West. Whichever way I go, I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself. As long as I put art before business, I’ll just let love lead the way.

From issue #781 (December 2016), available now.