Photo credit: Crackerfarm
The Potential Savior of Country Music doesn’t speak to his assembled flock, except through song, for a full hour. He hardly acknowledges the crowd at all in fact; he and his bandmates—who all look like they’re playing gigs in between shifts at their craft brewery—just rip into song after song after song. Before the night’s over, they’ll play 22 in all. They play nearly all of the songs from the Savior’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, and a bunch from his Old Testament (High Top Mountain). For 90 minutes, he is everything you want him to be—the appointed “answer” to pop country, the Real Deal, a Great Artist, the New King of Alt Country, the bridge between Waylon Jennings and the year 2015—that when he finally does talk to the crowd, you can’t help but be sort of disappointed. “Hey, thanks,” he says, a full hour into his set, as the sold-out crowd goes nuts. He lets the crowds linger for ten seconds, and he kicks into another song. “Talk is overrated,” he sings on “Life of Sin,” and he means it.
I went to the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, last week to see if Sturgill Simpson, he of the glowing Rolling Stone profiles, he of the Year End List, he of the semi-viral videos where uses his power of positive vibes at concerts to break up fights, lives up to the hype. Billed as a possible savior of “real” country music—whatever that means—you would have been hard pressed to find a hotter property in indie music at the end of 2014 than Simpson. He went from being a regular dude from Kentucky with an underrated debut album, to being on Letterman, nominated for a Grammy (Best Americana Album), and signed to major label Atlantic. He also came in at number six on Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop, the highest country album—pop, alt, or indie, or otherwise—on the list, and number one on Nashville Scene’s poll of country critics.
Most of his success—and, one has to assume, his major label deal—is off the back off the superlative Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, 2014’s country album that even people who hate country music like. It’s an album that’s been heralded as forward thinking, thanks to its open attitude towards psychedelic drugs and referencing Stephen Hawking, even though it shares a lineage with any number of “outlaw” country albums from the likes of Kristofferson, Waylon, Willie, and Haggard. Which is still great, because in 2014, most country sounded like ‘80s rock, and no one is making country albums that sound like 1972 anymore.
Sturgill has been barnstorming the U.S. for long before Metamodern Sounds blew up, so it’s no surprise his band is tightly wound and a smooth, efficient machine. They can lay into Simpson’s Roadhouse rockers—“Life of Sin” and “Poor Rambler,”—and they can slow it down to add even more delicate touch to ballads like “Just Let Go” and slow burners like “It Ain’t All Flowers.” What’s surprising is that Simpson is content to fade into the background and let his band shine; he sticks entirely to acoustic guitar, letting his Estonian guitarist (seriously!) Laur Joamets shred like Eddie Van Halen in a country band. Sturgill spent a lot of time standing in the back of the drum riser as his band went into frequent jam sessions, seeming like he didn’t want all of the spotlight.
The live image of Sturgill Simpson, playing his acoustic guitar from behind his drummer while his band plays out his songs doesn’t necessarily square with the image of him that has been painted in the music press. He’s being held up as some antidote to the crass hitmakers who currently dominate country radio with their country songs that have EDM drops instead of guitars. Simpson seems nonplussed about everything; he just plays his songs, crushes crowds and keeps doing what he does. He had to spend a bunch of 2014 sitting in front of reporters who would try to goad him in to saying things about Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan or whoever, and for the most part he didn’t say anything except that he doesn’t listen to pop country. It’s like he says on the High Top Mountain standout, “Some Days”: “Well I'm getting pretty tired of being treated like competition/ When the only one that can hold me down is inside my head.”
This year will be an interesting one for Sturgill; he seems destined to win that Grammy, and it remains to be seen what a major label Sturgill Simpson album will sound like (he’s allegedly already working on it). It would be a shame for him to end up as the new king of alt-country, the most intellectually bankrupt genre in all of music (it takes the original aim of country—reaching poor people and telling their stories—and removes the poor people). Despite their reputation, country fans love an iconoclast, so maybe he’ll be a hit on mainstream country radio. Jamey Johnson, and his similarly Outlaw Country-jacking The Guitar Song, debuted at number one on the country charts back in 2010, and it’s not hard to envision Simpson breaking through in mainstream country the same way. His plaid shirt and cuffed jeans fans might bristle at the thought of him ending up on CMT, but he’s really not that far apart from a lot of bro country; They all write songs about getting blitzed, falling in love, and contemplating the minute details of small town life. Hell, Florida Georgia Line have as many songs that talk about smoking weed as Sturgill does.
Country Music Savior or not, you owe it to yourself to see Sturgill on his massive tour. He’s been ending his proper set with the same two songs throughout the tour, the one-two punch of “You Can Have The Crown” and “Turtles All The Way Down,” which is the best two song selling point for him as a potentially Great Artist. “Crown” is funny, acerbic and autobiographical, and “Turtles” is his peak so far, a searching, self-confessional beauty. In the seven minutes you spend with those tracks, Sturgill Simpson more than lives up to the hype.
Andrew Winistorfer has a turtle and it's all the way down. Follow him on Twitter.