The Metamodern rise of Sturgill Simpson could be classified as meteoric, and his dramatic ascent in the last few months is virtually unparalleled in the modern country music world for an independent artist. Amidst the swelling crowds, the high praise, and far flung accolades, let’s look back at Sturgill Simpson, and take a moment to reflect on how he got here.
2004: The Formation of Sunday Valley
Sturgill Simpson forms a 4-piece band called Sunday Valley in his home state of Kentucky. They wear suits and ties to gigs, and drape a Kentucky flag over the bass drum as stage decoration. Sturgill sports a Stratocaster with a backwards neck. They open shows for fellow Kentucky-based band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers.
Photo from Matt McDonald
2004 to 2009: Sunday Valley, First Move to Nashville, Move to Utah
In 2005, Sturgill Simpson moves from Kentucky to Nashville for the first time. He stays there for about nine months, but has a hard time fitting in. “I really came, more than anything, to find the old timers that were still around, that I could play bluegrass with and try to learn as properly how that should be done as I could,” Sturgill tells NPR. “I didn’t find a lot of similar-minded folks in town: pop-country was really at saturation at that point, and what is now described as the “hip” Nashville scene wasn’t really there yet. You know, any of those bars in East Nashville that are hotspots, that you can walk into on a Friday or Saturday night back then there’d be six people in there.”
Feeling out-of-place, Sturgill decides it’s time to get a real job, and moves out to Utah to work for the railroad. He is 28-years-old at the time, and Sunday Valley is mothballed. In Salt Lake City, he works as a train conductor at a switching facility, helping to operate one of the main train arteries between the East and West Coast. “I really did enjoy it. We were outside,” Sturgill says. He does this for a few years, and then his grandfather gets sick, and he’s forced to move back to Kentucky to help take care of his family. Sturgill ends up getting stuck in Kentucky.
Eventually Sturgill meets his future wife and decides to move back out to Utah to work for the railroad again. However he takes a managerial position and it results in misery. “After about a year and a half of that, I was probably just at the most depressed state I’ve ever been in in my life.”
At this point, Sturgill has not played guitar in over 3 years. But at the urging of his wife, he begins to play again.
2010: Move Back to Nashville & Sunday Valley Revitalized
Afraid that he’s going to turn 40 and will have never seriously tried his hand at doing what he loved, Sturgill Simpson moves back to Nashville with the full support of his wife. They sell everything they can, and pack the rest in a Ford Bronco and head east.
Later in 2010, Sturgill Simpson revitalizes the Sunday Valley name and forms a three piece with Gerald Evans on Bass, and Edgar Purdom III on drums. They play more shows with their old Kentucky friends Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, and record an album To The Wind And On To Heaven. Sunday Valley is a hard-edged, hard-country, fast and raucous band, like Sturgill’s native bluegrass sound but electrified and on speed.
Sunday Valley & Sturgill Simpson catch the eye of manager Marc Dottore, the manager for Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, and Kathy Mattea.
January 2011: Saving Country Music & Pickathon
Saving Country Music posts a review of Sunday Valley‘s To The Wind And On To Heaven after being tipped off about the band by Blake Judd of Judd Films. SCM givs it “Two Guns Up!” and declares, “Sunday Valley is definitely worth your consideration and raising a blip on your radar, because mark my words, I have a feeling that this will not be the last time you will hear about Sturgill Simpson or this band, from me or others.”
During the same week, Saving Country Music is contacted by promoter Zale Schoenborn of the Pickathon Festival in Portland, OR, looking for recommendations for potential performers for the next season. Sunday Valley does not make the list [Editor’s note: because I ‘d never seen them perform live at that point], but Zale reads the Sunday Valley review, and is so enraptured, decides to book Sunday Valley anyway. Buoyed around their Pickathon appearance, Sunday Valley books a West Coast tour. The Pickathon booking is later seen as Sturgill Simpson and Sunday Valley’s big break.
August 2011: Sunday Valley Storms Pickathon in Portland, OR
Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson play a spectacular show at Pickathon in front of the influential audience and start creating a national buzz. Pokey LaFarge is in the crowd for one of the band’s sets, urging them on.
“I am here to tell you folks, Sunday Valley’s frontman Sturgill Simpson is a singular talent, one of those one-in-a-million folks who is touched by the country music holy spirit, and has the vigor to fully realize his potential, and assert his solely original perspective on American music without fear … Whatever praise, whatever accolades, whatever sway my good name has, I throw it all behind Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson 100%. This man deserves to be playing music for a living, and as long as that is not the case, it is a sin of our country.”
April 2012: Sturgill Simpson Walks Away from Sunday Valley Name
Music Fog releases a video of Sunday Valley in January of 2012 for the song “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean”. The video goes a long way in spreading Sturgill Simpson and Sunday Valley’s name. The video would be the first we’d hear of the new Sturgill Simpson sound, and becomes one of the last official appearances of Sunday Valley. Sturgill Simpson makes an appearance at SXSW in March of 2012 at XSXSW 5, and no longer has drummer Edgar Purdom III in tow. Then on April 27th, he officially announces:
Welp kids,”¦Lord knows it’s been a long road with a great many tears of joy and sadness and some very hard lessons learned but I know I speak for all four original members of Sunday Valley when I say we gave it everything we had and then some. Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years, I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.
There are no words I can think of that would possibly express our love and appreciation for you all and your support over the last 8 years”¦it means more than you could ever know. New band, new sound, new album coming very soon”¦as they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.
“To the wind and on to heaven”¦”
June 2013: The Release of High Top Mountain
On June 13th, Sturgill Simpson releases his first solo album High Top Mountain independently through Thirty Tigers. The album earns critical praise from country and roots media, and Sturgill Simpson is no longer a secret of the independent roots world. The New York Times says it’s “full of finely drawn songs both sad and tough.”
Sturgill Simpson told Saving Country Music about the album, “This is a much more honest representation of who I am, at least right now. I have the attention span of a 4-year-old. But I love all music, especially old soul and R&B, and traditional country. And I try to incorporate all those elements. This band is just where I am right now.”
August 2013: Playing the Grand Ole Opry
Sturgill Simpson is signed by the prestigious Paradigm Talent Agency for booking. Soon Simpson is opening shows for Dwight Yoakam and Charlie Robison.
Strugill makes his debut on the most hallowed stage in country music at the Grand Ole Opry on August, 23rd, 2013, as an invite from Marty Stuart. In a statement about the honor Sturgill said in part,
I credit my 82 yr. old Grandfather Dood Fraley more than anyone on Earth for, among many other things, my musical education. He’s the greatest man I’ve ever known”¦Period.
He told me, “That’s it bud..that’s the biggest honor in Country music..that’s what you’ve been working so hard for all these years whether you knew it or not. If you never sing or record another note, you ain’t gotta prove nothing else to nobody after that. Don’t worry about what they’re doing now, just go do it your way and I’ll be right there with ya.”
May 2014: The Release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
on May 6th, Sturgill performs on the BBC’s Later … with Jools Holland.
On May 13th, Sturgill Simpson releases his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and the rout is on. All the touring, accolades, and critical acclaim see the independent country artist debut at at #11 on the Top Country Albums chart, and #59 on the all-genre Billboard 200.
NPR debuts Metamodern Sounds as part of their “First Listen” series, and The New York Times says, “Sturgill Simpson is a top-notch miserablist, from the lyrics that pick at scabs to his defeated vocal tone, leaky even when he’s singing at full power. His second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (High Top Mountain), is a triumph of exhaustion, one of the most jolting country albums in recent memory, and one that achieves majesty with just the barest of parts.”
Many other periodicals and websites give the album top critical praise, and his music begins to get the attention of the mainstream country music industry. Sturgill Simpson has arrived.
June 2014: Tour Dates with Zac Brown Announced
Sturgill Simpson is booked to open for Zac Brown on select arena and amphitheater tour dates. It is revealed later that Zac Brown personally requested Sturgill to join the tour last minute.
Sturgill’s wife gives birth to their first child.
Photo from Sturgill Simpson Facebook Page
July 2014: Plays David Letterman
on July 14th, Sturgill Simpson joins the list of independent country and roots artists David Letterman has allowed on his stage to make their network television debut. “Welp, I can retire now,” Sturgill says.
Let’s hope he doesn’t.