Nick Bollinger delves into an album that combines soul horns and grunge anthems with classic country from Sturgill Simpson.
Sturgill Simpson is the kind of name that could somehow only belong to a country singer. Which is lucky, because Sturgill Simpson has the kind of voice that was made for country as well.
It’s a classic country voice – not an alt-country whimper but a big dark rumble, like the ghost of Waylon Jennings, returned to dispense outlaw justice. That voice got deserved attention with Simpson’s first two albums, the 2013 High Top Mountain and the following year’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. The latter title was particularly apt, because while Simpson has the voice of a traditionalist – and a terrific, tradition-steeped band to match – his concerns are a little wider, and more contemporary, than the old drinking-loving-fighting triangle of classic country. On Metamodern Sounds he didn’t just sing about whiskey, but also LSD, and he wasn’t just tipping his hat to Willie and Waylon but to Carl Sagan and Aldous Huxley. But on his new album, he’s shifted the frame yet again. And this time he’s both more traditional and more metamodern.
As with his earlier albums, there is an overarching theme to this latest one, and it’s one with a long tradition in country music: the birth of Simpson’s first son. He’s called the album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, both a literal and metaphoric guise for a list of do’s and don’t-do’s from a father who has spent much of his life as an itinerant, firstly with the US Navy, then as a professional musician.
Simpson doesn’t spare the string section nor the piano player in the ballad that opens the set. Big feelings call for big gestures, and this one threatens to tip over in Billy Joel territory. But it’s just one indication that Simpson doesn’t see himself as some fringe, alternative anything, or is even fundamentally concerned with country traditions. His voice is country, that’s a given, and he’ll use whatever it takes to put it across; which might be a string section, or a soul band – and he has the great Dap Kings horn section supplying wind-power for several tracks on the album. Simpson might be thinking of great 70s country-soul crossovers, like Tony Joe White to Bobby Womack, but he must also recall that it was the Dap Kings who Amy Winehouse used just a decade ago for her big commercial crossover. At other times, Simpson steers his band into a place closer in spirit to ZZ Top.
But in a way the most ‘rock’ gesture on the album is one the quietest tracks - Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’ given the full countrypolitan makeover. You sense Simpson’s genuine affection for the old grunge anthem, and I guess it has its place in the autobiographic picture he’s put together for his newborn son. Yet once again I wouldn’t discount an element of sheer commercial savvy.
What’s certain is that with each of his albums, Simpson’s reputation has grown and this one looks likely to take him well beyond the country cognoscenti, to people who don’t even think of themselves as country fans. With strings, horns, Kurt Cobain songs and rock pyrotechnics, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth dreams big, and might make Simpson the crossover star he deserves to be. Yet my favourite moments are still the ones where I feel I’ve just walked into some anonymous southern roadhouse and chanced upon the best bar singer I’ve ever heard.
Songs featured: Sea Stories, Welcome To Earth, Keep It Between the Lines, Sugar Daddy, Call To Arms.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is available on Thirty Tigers Records.