The first thing to know about Sturgill Simpson is that he represents something very special in today’s music landscape. He’s a country artist for those who don’t listen to (or maybe don’t even like) country music. His music reaches out a hand to those who have long — and rightfully — lamented mainstream country’s stale reliance on anthems for good ol’ boys and all-white sororities. His talent is rare, and his message often is one of kindness and rationality, rather than partying and revenge.
Over the course of three albums, Simpson has proved himself to be a unique voice in the genre. And for those of us who grew up on country radio but could never reconcile the overt Christian overtones, xenophobic chest thumping, and outright racism, Simpson couldn’t have come soon enough. His brand of country is more secular, full of psychedelic mysticism and rooted in humanism. Think of him as a kind of country Kurt Vonnegut.
Simpson’s music sounds like pure down home red state Americana, but his lyrics appeal to blue state social progressive ideals. He’s a complicated country musician that people from different walks of life can seemingly agree to like, sort of in the same way as Willie Nelson.
Though his songs feature solid country staples like trucks and dogs and highways, he avoids the jingoist overtones that prop up most country careers. Not since the Dixie Chicks dared challenge conservative America’s blood lust during the Iraq War has there been anything this rootsy and progressive in country music. Simpson is a genre-bending breath of fresh air in a very stagnant room.
At his show at the Fox Theater in 2015, Simpson’s onstage act came off as disappointingly reserved. But on his recent Sunday, Nov. 20 performance at the Fox, which he said would be his final show of the year, Simpson transformed into a hooping and hollering country outlaw. Backed by a seven piece band, including a wailing brass trio, Simpson seemed to go into a performer’s trance, a kind of country music duende. I don’t know what it was like to watch Elvis in his early days, but seeing Simpson on Sunday night made me wonder. For two hours in Oakland, Simpson was a country legend in the making.
Dressed in denim and work boots, Simpson looked like he could easily be heading to a job at a steel plant, rather than playing for a full Fox Theater. Yet, while his image might say blue collar Americana, his lyrics often dive into the metaphysical wonderland of an elbow patch philosophy professor. Simpson is equally comfortable singing about the plight of coal country Kentucky — where he’s from — as he is singing about LSD and consciousness expansion.
His song “Turtles all the Way Down” from his sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is a good example of this. How many country musicians sing about what can only be assumed is DMT? “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane,” he coos in the track. “Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain / Tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brain / Some say you might go crazy but then again it might make you go sane.”
Simpson’s music is low-down, dirty, vulnerable, and a hell of a lot of fun. His sound blends the grit of George Jones and Waylon Jennings with a contemporary call to compassion. His soul may be old and rusty, but his music is cutting edge and approachable in a way that few country artists have achieved in recent memory. If we’re lucky, his trend will catch on and he’ll save us all from the God and Guns pop-country nightmare we’ve had to suffer through as the Nashville establishment regurgitates the same over-produced high-calorie twang into the waiting maws of an increasingly urban country radio audience.
Much like how cookie-cutter L.A. hair bands dominated the 1980s rock charts before Nirvana (a band Simpson covers on his latest album) emerged from the Seattle fog and buried them in a shallow grave, country music has long been dominated by clean-boot guys in cowboy hat costumes who dream of winning Best Pop Album. But thankfully, while Nashville’s dirt roads were being paved over with artificially flavored strawberry asphalt, Simpson was writing songs and quietly releasing records.
Onstage and on his albums, his growling voice strains and stretches into moments of raw emotion, his lyrics offering glimpses into the life of a psychonaut desperado, with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a warm heart in his chest. His live version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” was one of the highlights of the night.
His audience in Oakland was eclectic. Plenty of plaid and denim, sure. Hipsters in ties and jean jackets, along with guys who looked like they may have ridden in a rodeo earlier in the weekend. A woman wearing a knit cape with fringe and a cowl collar. Towards the back, a couple in cowboy hats danced like they were listening to the house band at their favorite Nashville honky-tonk. Not something you see everyday in downtown Oakland.
As the night went on, neither Simpson, his band, nor the crowd let up. After more than two hours of nonstop psychedelic country jamming, Simpson and his band brought the house and the music to a crescendo. While people in the audience immediately shouted for an encore, Simpson dropped his guitar on stage with a bang, waved to the crowd, said “We’ll see you soon, thank you!“ and walked off.