It was in a motel shower where Sturgill Simpson found the inspiration for what has gone on to become one of his most signature and iconic songs, and he almost injured himself rushing out of the shower to jot it down. This was one of the revelations that came out of a Q&A about songwriting that took place at the Grammy Museum in L.A. between Sturgill Simpson and John Prine on Tuesday evening (6-23).
The method of writing “Turtles All The Way Down” came up in a discussion about the challenges of writing songs and finishing them.
“Especially if you leave the song and try to go back to it. It’s really tough,” said John Prine. “I try to always remember that, and I don’t. If somebody sticks their head in the window and says, ‘Hey, let’s go get a hot dog,’ I’m like ‘That’s great. Let’s do that. I could finish this any old time.’ Where the song starts from, you gotta stick with it ’cause it’s really tough to finish. Otherwise you feel like you’re finishing somebody else’s song.”
“Do you think looking back at the ones that did get finished are the ones that took about 20 minutes or 30 minutes?” Sturgill then asked Prine.
“Faster than I could write,” he answers. “Like they just came out. You get one really good verse, and it would make you write the next verse right on through. It was a matter of what do you leave out?”
This reminded Sturgill of how he came to write “Turtles All The Way Down.”
“I remember we were doing our first tour, somewhere probably like a Red Roof Inn or Howard Johnson’s,” Sturgill explains. “I almost killed myself getting out of the shower to write it down. It was right before we were going to check out and leave. And I had to literally like jump out of the shower and I slipped. And I wrote it down and I remember coming out … I’ll never forget this. I came out of the hotel in the parking lot and all the guys were out there and I was like, ‘I wrote this song, it’s pretty cool.’ And I started singing it to them, and they all looked at me like I was bat shit crazy.”
Since including “Turtles All The Way Down” on his second album Metamodern Songs in Country Music, it has become the song many people identify Sturgill with the most. He says fans have given him all kinds of turtle mementos since cutting the song.
John Prine said later in the discussion that once he finishes a song, “I have to decide if I want to take ownership.”
“…and sing it for the rest of your life,” Sturgill added.
“That’s my one piece of advice for songwriters,” answered Prine. “Make sure you like the song you wrote because it might be a hit.”
“Turtles All The Way Down” was a “hit” for Sturgill, and there’s a good chance he’ll still be asked to sing it 20 years from now.
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You can see the 1 1/2-hour discussion between John Prince, Sturgill Simpson, and moderator Paul Zollo below. Sturgill is currently touring behind his latest record, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.