Listening: Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”

Led off by his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which was released in advance, Sturgill Simpson’s new album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” came out on Friday, April 15. I woke up that morning to a notification on my iPhone that I could now access my pre-ordered copy— woohoo! Simpson has been a darling of alt-country for some time now, and Garden & Gun‘s recent article pairing him with Merle Haggard billed him as a “rising outlaw country star,” the heir apparent to the recently deceased singer. (In an eerie coincidence, when the subject of playing a show together came up, Haggard replied, “Yeah. We’re going to do a lot more shows together, I think, if I don’t die or something.”)

I was a late-comer to country music, not really even dabbling in it until my late teens. Though I was fortunate enough to be an impressionable youngster when Kenny Rogers was singing “The Gambler” and when Waylon could be heard weekly opening up for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” I had the misfortune of reaching my formative musical years during the ultra-cheesy era of Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Trisha Yearwood. As a teenager, I was more interested in AC/DC than in Allen Jackson. It wasn’t until I was about-grown that Johnny Cash broke through my musical prejudices, via Rick Rubin a la Trent Reznor. I had heard The Grateful Dead’s version of “Mama Tried” before I ever knew that Merle sang it, and it took me a while to get over my clean-cut mother’s biting remarks about Willie Nelson’s nasty long hair and beard to give him a good listen. (I’ve now seen Willie live four times.) But, once I finally did discover this music for myself, great country music – not Shania Twain, and definitely not Luke Bryan – I’ve fallen head over heels in love with it.

So, I was quite pleased to find Sturgill Simpson among the current wreckage. When I  tune in to country radio, I can’t help but wonder what’s out there beside The Band Perry and Little Big Town – this is what wins CMAs? – and I also have to wonder why alt-country and Americana acts like Jason Isbell are getting ignored. But there is hope beyond the airwaves and CMT. Sturgill Simpson’s sound and style are so much truer to what country music should be than Big & Rich could imagine in their wildest dreams. When I first heard Simpson’s voice, I found myself wondering whether he sounded like Randy Travis, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, or a mixture of all three. Matt Hendrickson put it well in Garden & Gun:

the Kentucky native has struck a nerve by defying Nashville expectations, with many seeing him as a modern antidote to everything that’s wrong with country music these days—the glitz, the beer-’n’-truck bros, the dance beats, the blandness.

That Friday morning, I got up and made my coffee, then scrambled around with the kids to get them ready for school, before I took a minute during the scurrying on that gloomy, cool morning to answer the call of iTunes and listen to the first track on “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” After a faint bell-ringing intro, the album begins with piano, and then comes Simpson’s voice, raw and pure. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” starts out as an old-school country lament, but quickly shifts into ’60s-soul number, complete with horns blasting and shaky tambourines.

After a slow and eerie track two, “Breakers Roar,” Simpson returns to that good ‘ol barroom soul music in “Keep It Between the Lines,” this time adding in that Allman Brothers-style slide guitar, similar to what we heard on the previous album’s “Living the Dream.” The next song, “Sea Stories,” moves us into pure country with strumming guitars and pedal-steel accompaniment.

Track five is the pre-released Nirvana cover. During my anti-country teenage years, Nirvana’s Nevermind was a staple of my senior-year-into-college musical diet, and to hear this really nice interpretation of it— yep, I was thinking, he did that . . . and it works. Revamping a post-punk classic from an album that almost every Gen-Xer owns into a dynamic country song where the horns bust in halfway through and drive it forward— that’s risky. But it works. Bravo, Mr. Simpson.

He follows up that four-minute triumph with a swaggering, guitar-driven Southern rock tune called “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” This one was also pre-released. At nearly six-minutes, the instrumental sections run a little long, but not too bad. One of things that I have liked about Sturgill Simpson’s music is his ability to combine things I’ve heard before into something new that I haven’t heard. In “Brace for Impact,” the vocals reminded me of Bad Company in the ’70s, while the music side kind of reminded me a little bit of JJ Cale’s “Ride Me High,” though not as funky.

Rolling into the final third of “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Simpson settles into the really nice thing that he has created. The Hammond organ-heavy “All Around You” could easily have been an Otis Redding song, and after that, “Oh Sarah” moves along softly with accompaniment from a strings section.

Closing out, Simpson cranks up the electric guitars for “Call to Arms.” We’re back in the barroom for track nine. In this one, the instrumental sections are perfect, jumping from solo to solo, jacking up the energy, and quieting down only to ramp back up. We get the feeling that he has waited until the end to really cut loose, to show us what he and his band can do. “Call to Arms” is a rip-roaring antidote to Toby Keith’s profiteering patriotism, a biting commentary on what it means to be a soldier in this day and age.

“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” was worth the wait. From his previous work, I’ve been partial to “Livin’ the Dream” and “Voices,” back to back songs on his Metamodern Sounds in County Music album, and frankly, I had just about worn out what I already had. “A Sailor’s Guide” is not necessarily a pure country album, but hell, is there such a thing as pure country? If Johnny Cash can put miriachi brass on “Ring of Fire” and still be called country, then Simpson’s strays into soul and Southern rock won’t hurt his chances.

If you want to hear more from Sturgill Simpson before you buy “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” you can listen to him on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts or on Live on KEXP. Both programs are from 2014.

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