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What we’re listening to: ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ by Sturgill Simpson

-Charles Dranginis, Roots N Blues Intern

In an industry where innovation seems to butt heads with preservation, the path to success often passes through conservative terrestrial radio. Therefore, the evolution of country moves at a turtle’s pace. But, ya see, Sturgill Simpson isn’t too concerned about being the new face of country. “A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there,” said Simpson in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Simpson has been toeing the line of otherworldly innovator and the modern-day Waylon Jennings in the country scene since the 2014 release of his breakout album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But to Simpson, he is neither. And to the rest of us, he is neither and both — all at once.

Throughout his discography, he addresses existential issues like the nature of life, a shared consciousness between the universe and the metaphysics of the spiritual experience. Nothing exemplifies this more than the song “It Ain’t All Flowers.” The track begins and ends with an instrumental line played backwards that makes it feel like a sci-fi jam from the cosmos. This feature completely changes the structure of the track and the direction of the album, while simultaneously highlighting Simpson’s ability to be transcendental. 

These motifs aren’t commonly found in country music, and that’s why Simpson has become a martyr for the always-contentious “Alt-Country” genre. But directly following this other worldly sound is the bonus track “Pan Bowl,” where Simpson takes us back to Pan Bowl Lake in his hometown of Jackson, Kentucky. The true beauty in it all is his ability to bring all of the topics he’s addressed back down to earth through clear melodies and meticulously structured sets of lyrics.

Simpson followed Metamodern, a groundbreaking combination of revivalist outlaw country with contemporary subject matter with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a concept album based on a sailor’s letter home to his son and wife. It’s as contemplative and solemn as you would expect from such a thoughtful musician. 

If Simpson’s discography was the trajectory of a young man’s life, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music would be the angsty adolescent questioning the basis of his reality. Meanwhile, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth would be the content adult man, still questioning the basis of his reality but knowing that the journey is as life-affirming as it is tumultuous.

That’s what makes Simpson so absolutely brilliant to me. It’s a constant dichotomy between the minute details of life and the bewilderment of the sonic universe all around us. The traditionalist, Kentucky-raised Waylon Jennings of our time or the drug experimenting, cosmic theorizing, alternative to Alt-Country. There is no definition to Sturgill Simpson; he is simply a thinker who is as interested in the quest for order as the moments that spin all of that order into place.

If you want to take a trip through space-time continuum all while staying close to your roots (I’m sorry), then there is no better musician to guide you than Sturgill Simpson this September at Stephens Park.