Sturgill Simpson Puts A Paternal Twist On Hard-Edged Country | Nashville Public Radio

Sturgill Simpson Puts A Paternal Twist On Hard-Edged Country

May 6, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 6:06 pm

From the buzz that surrounded Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the breakout album Sturgill Simpson released two years ago, you might not know that Simpson is a deep thinker who treasures his blue-collar, Appalachian roots. When it came out, some folks pegged him as a cross between a hell-raising outlaw and an acid tripper with his head in the clouds. A drug reference in one of the songs got, shall we say, a disproportionate amount of attention.

"That's my fault," he says. "I made the mistake of thinking that ... you could put LSD in a song without people thinking that that's weird. I fail to see how anything can still be weird in 2016. You know what I mean? But, whatever."

On his latest album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Simpson deliberately steers his music — well, down to earth. He's all about being a dad right now, though you you wouldn't know it from his car: an old Ford Bronco like the one his coal-mining maternal granddad used to drive. But the big tires, roaring engine and missing backseat are hardly ideal for transporting Simpson's toddler around Nashville.

"We talked about bolting a child seat into the floor board, but my wife was like, no," he says. "She shot that down pretty quick. When I go home to eastern Kentucky it comes in handy, but mostly it just pisses off the neighbors."

Simpson's office is a musty basement lair he shares with legendary songwriter John Prine. There's a vintage pinball machine in one corner, a jukebox in another and a kitchen table between.

"I needed a writing space to get out of my house with the little guy," he says. "Because any time I try to write or sit down and do things, he wants to be there with me and play the guitar."

Simpson's son was born right before Metamodern Sounds came out. But the singer was on the road so much that he had to watch the baby grow in photographs. So in his new songs, Simpson wanted to create a musical letter to his wife and kid, much like the letter his paternal grandfather wrote to his own family when he shipped off to serve in World War II.

"I learned more in those three pages about that man than I probably ever could have, like, sitting in a room and talking to him," he says. "I wanted to do something really special for my kid. That might be completely self-indulgent, to write your first major-label debut as a dedication to your family. But, you know, that's where my heart was."

Simpson decided to produce the album on his own. Right across the hall from his writing room is the studio where he recorded with seasoned engineer Dave Ferguson — Ferg, to those who know him. He remembers when Simpson first started talking about this record; he said he didn't really have much.

"He told me he didn't have no songs. He says, 'Man, I ain't really got anything. I got a few notes,'" Ferguson says. "'I was like, 'Oh Jesus. Everybody's here.' I went outside — and he told my second engineer Sean Sullivan, 'I'm really just messing with Ferg. I got all these songs. I got 'em in the bag right here.'"

Every song came from Simpson's pen but one: Remembering how Nirvana's "In Bloom" spoke to him in junior high, he decided to reimagine it.

"I just really want to make — to be cliché about it — I want to make pretty music," he says. "Like Roy Orbison or Elvis, man. Those guys made beautiful, tender music."

To achieve that in his own music, Simpson expanded his hard-edged country sound with streetwise soul horns and lush string arrangements. And to help him figure out which tracks were keepers, he played them for his son. The kid dug the music. Some day, he may also appreciate the conflicted emotions in the lyrics.

"I also wanted him to know that it's very important to me that he doesn't have to grow up and be this numb, callous person to feel like he's a man," he says. "I wanted him to know it's okay to be empathetic and compassionate and sensitive and whoever he grows up to be. God forbid in the event that something did happen to me before he grows up, then he has, at least, some semblance left behind to get an understanding of who his father was, instead of what he might read on the archives of the grand ole internet."

And besides, the reality of who Sturgill Simpson is is so much more interesting.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And, Steve, in a moment, we're going to hear from Jenn Adams. She's one of this region's distinctive musicians.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Looking forward to that. We start with some distinctive music with an Appalachian flavor. A few weeks ago, when we got the view from Appalachia, a music promoter told us country music has a punk rock sensibility.

Sturgill Simpson plays country music, which was said to have an acid-tripping sensibility. Sturgill's new album, "A Sailor's Guide To Earth," may change that. Here's Jewly Hight of member station WPLN.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: You wouldn't necessarily know from the buzz that's surrounded "Metamodern Sounds" that Sturgill Simpson is a deep thinker who treasures his blue-collar Appalachian roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF "METAMODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC" ALBUM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Introducing "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music."

HIGHT: A drug reference in one of the songs got, shall we say, a disproportionate amount of attention.

STURGILL SIMPSON: That's my fault. I made the mistake of thinking that in 2016 you could put LSD in a song without people thinking that that's weird. You know, I fail to see how anything can still be weird in 2016, you know what I mean? Like - well, whatever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN")

SIMPSON: (Singing) There's a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there, far beyond this plane where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.

HIGHT: This time around, Simpson deliberately steered his music down to Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO EARTH")

SIMPSON: (Singing) Hello my son. Welcome to Earth. You may not be my last, but you'll always be my first.

HIGHT: Sturgill Simpson is all about being a dad right now, but you wouldn't know it from his car. He tools around Nashville in an old Ford Bronco like the one his coal-mining maternal granddad used to drive. But the big tires, roaring engine and missing back seat are hardly ideal for transporting Simpson's toddler.

SIMPSON: We talked about bolting a child seat into the floorboard, but my wife was like, no. She shot that down pretty quick.

When I go home to Eastern Kentucky, it comes in handy but mostly just pisses off the neighbors.

HIGHT: We're heading to Simpson's office, a musty basement lair he shares with legendary songwriter John Prine. There's a vintage pinball machine in one corner, a jukebox in another and a kitchen table between.

SIMPSON: I needed a writing space to get out of my house with the little guy 'cause any time I try to write or sit down and do things he wants to be there with me and play the guitar.

HIGHT: Simpson's son was born right before "Metamodern Sounds" came out. But the singer was on the road so much that he had to watch the baby grow in photographs. So in his new songs, Simpson wanted to create a musical letter to his wife and kid much like the letter his paternal grandfather wrote to his own family when he shipped off to serve in World War II.

SIMPSON: I learned more in those three pages about that man than I probably ever could have sitting in a room and talking to him. You know, I wanted to do something really special for my kid and that might be completely self-indulgent to write your major-label debut as a dedication to your family, but, you know, that's where my heart was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP IT BETWEEN THE LINES")

SIMPSON: (Singing) Don't burn two lanterns at the same time. No ship out on the water will pay your rent 'cause you live and you learn. Sometimes you get burned. When your get out done got up, walked out the door and went, do as I say. Don't do as I've done. It don't have to be like father, like son.

HIGHT: Simpson decided to produce this album on his own. Right across the hall from his writing room is the studio where he recorded with season engineer David Ferguson - Ferg to those who know him.

DAVID FERGUSON: He told me he didn't have no songs. He says, man, you know, I ain't really got anything. He said I got a few notes.

SIMPSON: Some notes.

(LAUGHTER)

FERGUSON: I got a few notes.

SIMPSON: I got some notes.

FERGUSON: You know, I really don't have anything, you know. Oh, no, Jesus. You know, everybody's here. I mean, I went outside, and he told my second engineer - and he said I'm really just messing with Ferg. I got all these songs, he said. I got them in a bag right here.

HIGHT: Every song but one came from Simpson's pen. Remembering how Nirvana's "In Bloom" spoke to him in junior high, he decided to reimagine it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN BLOOM")

SIMPSON: (Singing) He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs and likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun. But he don't know what it means, don't know what it means to love someone.

I just really want to make this - to be cliche about it. I want to make pretty music like Roy Orbison or Elvis, man. Those guys made beautiful, tender music.

HIGHT: To achieve that in his own music, Simpson expanded his hard edge country sound with streetwise soul horns and lush string arrangements. And to help him figure out which tracks were keepers, he played them for his son. The kid dug the music. Someday he may also appreciate the conflicted emotions in the lyrics.

SIMPSON: It's very important to me that he doesn't have to grow up and be this numb, callous person to feel like he's a man. I wanted him to know it's OK to be empathetic and compassionate and sensitive. And, God forbid, in the event though that something did happen to me before he grows up then he has at least some semblance left behind to sort of get an understanding of who his father was instead of what he might read on the archives of the grand old Internet.

HIGHT: And besides, the reality of who Sturgill Simpson is is so much more interesting. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEA STORIES")

SIMPSON: Setting out on them high seas feels just like being born. But that first port call in Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.