Sturgill Simpson comes from good Eastern Kentucky stock—family who’d pick up guitars only after putting in long shifts in coal mines. When he tired once and for all of working the railroad and singing bluegrass on the side, he headed for Nashville and captured the attention of critics with his down-to-earth country debut, High Top Mountain.
On his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he’s kept a foot in tradition while letting his mind wander the cosmos, and it’s an exhilarating departure.
“When it came time to write another record,” he says, “I was just like, ‘I can’t possibly fathom the idea of writing another drinking song.’”
And no wonder. He’d gotten off the bottle and into some profound reading. He explains, “It was a lot of these grander, heady, esoteric ideas, your mid-twenties existientialistic dilemma that I never had the opportunity to commit to tape in my mid-20s. So I figured, you know, playing catch up.”
Simpson didn’t have college philosophy professors to blow his sharp and searching mind; he joined the Navy right after high school. But over the last few years, he’d been bending his wife’s ear about books and articles on quantum physics, metaphysics and the like.
None impacted him more than DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a scientific study of psychedelic experiences by Dr. Rick Strassman.
“It really went out there, and people were [describing], like, alien abductions, or the thought of leaving their body entirely, looking down on themselves like a near death experience, or waking up in this alternate dimension with these little elf, alien creatures cutting them open and, you know, pulling out what, I guess, represented emotional baggage that we all carry around.”
That alien bit? Simpson paraphrased it in a country tune his mother and grandmother said is their favorite in the bunch, “Turtles All the Way Down.” Here’s Simpson playing it at the Ryman Auditorium during A Prairie Home Companion recently:
Distorted Mics, Reverse Loops
Simpson hasn’t been one to embellish his sound in the past. He’s held the attention of many a crowd with just his brawny baritone voice and acoustic guitar. But on the nearly seven-minute track “It Ain’t All Flowers,” he and producer Dave Cobb went for studio effects—from avant-garde guitar solos to purposefully distorted microphones and loops played in reverse—that get just as far out there as the lyrics.
“It’s probably the most beautiful, horrifying ugly piece of music I’ve ever heard. The desired effect was that by the time it’s over, you’re glad.”
When the dust clears from that telescopic sonic voyage, he returns listeners to solid ground with comforting, nostalgic images from his Appalachian childhood in the album’s stripped-down bonus track, “Pan Bowl.”
“That figurative journey or trip has to come home at some point,” Simpson reasons. “I probably thought about it way too much, to be honest. There’s a lot of metaphor and juxtaposition that really doesn’t mean anything to anybody other than me. [laughs] I feel like I’m doing a disservice even describing and explaining it.”
You find that the more Simpson—the roots-respecting songwriter—talks about the unearthly concepts he’s packed into this set, the more sheepish and self-conscious he gets: “If I sound embarrassed, it’s only because I am fully aware of how completely ridiculous it all sounds.”
When you get right down to it, what Simpson has done is incarnate a world in which he can make a soulful, roundtrip commute between coal country and cosmology, and that’s anything but ridiculous—it’s downright remarkable.