Sturgill Simpson has arrived ladies & gentlemen, thanks to the resounding critical success of his new album Metamodern Sounds of Country Music that has permeated just about every corner of the independent roots music culture. From NPR, to The New York Times, to Billboard, to important periodicals in Europe, wherever you turn, someone is singing the praises of the Kentucky native.
This resounding success has made some, if not many, wonder where does Sturgill Simpson go from here? Just how big can he get? Could we possibly hear Sturgill Simpson songs on mainstream radio? Could we see him get a nomination from the CMA? Could Sturgill Simpson and Metamodern Sounds be the artist and album to save country music? Without a doubt he’s that one artist this is resonating, right here, right now, and unlike other artists that have done so recently such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson is decidedly country, potentially giving him the ability to be considered for attention by country music’s largest institutions.
I think we all need to take a douse of realism, while at the same time understanding that Sturgill Simpson becoming something bigger than just a mid-level club act is very realistic if the right things fall into place. But there is a long, long way to go, and a lot of the talk surrounding him at the moment is sort of like playing fantasy football. In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created. So in the end, a “Let’s just do the best we can, and see where this goes” mentality is probably the most wise course of action. Though someone who might read artcles on savingcountrymusic.com on a regular basis might see Sturgill Simpson’s name everywhere they turn and think this thing is in the midst of something historic, out in the big scary world, he’s still very much an unknown. For now.
But you also can’t discount the magic of music when it is matched up with the right moment for the world to hear it. That’s how all great movements in music start, by one person doing something the world has a great hunger for. And can anyone disagree that a hunger for someone like Sturgill Simpson exists in country music right now? As silly as the notion may seem to some, the indelible part of the country music mythos that hopes for a savior to come and return balance to the genre is a very real force all to itself, and carries its own weight and momentum.
It’s also worth pointing out that Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only one who deserves credit for what is becoming a meteoric rise. Some very wise moves have been made in marketing him, and how his music has been released. Normally, releasing albums less than a year apart is frowned upon these days. For Sturgill, this move was fortuitous. Just as the High Top Mountain‘s cycle was losing steam, here he comes with an album that regardless of where he goes from here, will be looked back upon as a landmark; as an important moment in his development. Now Sturgill has all the momentum at his back, and that, along with an excellent management team, has allowed Sturgill to reach far beyond what we normally see from independent artists that may feel very intimate to us because we’ve seen them in half empty barrooms, or heard their music before anyone else.
Sturgill’s manager Marc Dottore (also Marty Stuart’s manager), has been able to get him in front of big audiences at the Opry, on The Marty Stuart Show, and opened up many doors not normally accessible to independent artists. Sturgill’s booking agent got him on some big tours opening for Dwight Yoakam. And Sturgill and his band have been pounding the pavement, playing strange tour runs that are not always intuitive when they’re drawn on a map, and that take a toll on the band’s personal lives and sanity, but in the end got him in front of the right people to have an impact. There are a lot of talented country artists, and a lot of artists like Sturgill that have worked very hard. But Sturgill, his band, and his management team and publicists didn’t just work hard, they worked smart. And that, just as much as Sturgill’s talent, the appeal of the music, and the fortuitous timing of it, lent to where he is today.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Picked Up By A Major Label?
Could he? Sure. Since he’s signed with new school distribution company Thirty Tigers, Sturgill still retains his rights, and the freedom to do whatever he wants with his music, whether it is the music on Metamodern Sounds, or music he makes in the future. This is one of the specific reasons Sturgill decided to go with Thirty Tigers, despite being offered other deals by other labels before High Top Mountain. And there’s precedent here with other artists. Chase Rice, one of the writers of Florida Georgia Line’s blockbuster song “Cruise”, started out as a Thirty Tigers artist, releasing music through the label before making a partnership through Columbia Records in March to distribute his EP and his “Ready, Set, Roll” single.
Speaking of Florida Georgia Line, they have a somewhat similar story, where they made an EP called It’z Just What We Do that after it went crazy, landed them a deal with Big Machine Records. Much of the music from that EP ended up on their first major full-length release.
But let’s be realistic. Do we really think real deal Sturgill Simpson is going to sign with a major label that would more than likely mean handing over the rights to his songs, and potentially artistic control? Granted, this isn’t always a pitfall of the major label world. There are some artists that with the right leverage power have been able to negotiate contracts in their favor that didn’t include all the traditional trappings of a major label deal. But unless it is perfect, Sturgill Simpson isn’t going to take it. Sturgill is a peculiar, cantankerous individual; an idealist that isn’t motivated by fame and money beyond wanting to provide for his family.
So the next question would be is, would the combination of Thirty Tigers and Sturgill’s current management structure be able to handle some major meteoric rise that would result in the gross equivalent of a major label deal? It’s kind of hard to know, but simply asking the question may be getting way ahead of ourselves.
Could Sturgill Simpson Be Nominated for a CMA Award?
Not to throw cold water on anything, but shaking my magic ‘8’ ball, what I’m coming up with is “not likely”. Maybe in the future, when Sturgill has taken a few more steps, and his name recognition is such that the wider industry is paying more attention. But for now, Sturgill must conquer the Americana and independent ranks. He may very well do that with Metamodern Sounds, and this may create the gateway to greener pastures. But we can’t take this happening as a given.
One benefit he has over artists like Jason Isbell or Justin Townes Earle who’ve both had big success in Americana, is that Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana.
But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry, just as the Americana Music Awards are set up to promote the Americana industry. And right now, Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry. He may play country music, but that doesn’t immediately make him a contender, let alone visible to the CMA voters, even though he may technically qualify. What would put him on their map is strong, prolonged commercial success along with his critical acclaim: solid showings on MediaBase and Billboard charts for sales and plays.
The other thing he would need to do to be considered by the CMA is to have mainstream radio play. And with the climate these days at mainstream radio, where it realistically takes sometimes $500,000 to $1 million dollars to promote a single, especially from an unknown artist, that possibility may be the most out-of-reach for Sturgill. Besides, I’m not sure Metamodern Sounds contains any “single” material for modern-day radio.
However there is hope that a critical darling can crack through all the commercial hurdles that hold many artists out of the CMA process. Though Kacey Musgraves resides on a major label, appreciate that without even one Top 10 single to her name, she walked away with the Album of the Year trophies at both the Grammy Awards and ACM’s this year. When faced with overwhelming consensus about a critical favorite, whether it’s Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park, or Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song, industry awards will step up to at least dole out nominations to these projects. An Americana Grammy for Sturgill is a very real possibility, but remember last year they completely snubbed Jason Isbell, who by all accounts was the clear favorite going in.
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More realistically, Sturgill Simpson just needs to eat what’s on his plate, and focus on growing his name recognition. Sturgill will continue to focus on touring, and creating a fan base that can support him at the club level. That will open up the possibility for bigger opening slots, and more exposure.
We have been at this crossroads before, where an artist feels like he’s on the brink of blowing up and rising to the mainstream level. In 2008 when Hank Williams III was riding off of huge momentum from a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful release Straight to Hell, it looked for a minute that he may break through the walls of the mainstream and completely shake up the industry. Williams had been touring like crazy for a half decade. He had all the momentum at his back. When his next album came out, Damn Right, Rebel Proud in 2008, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Williams had climbed nine rungs up a ten rung ladder, and he had done it his way, fighting against his label to win creative freedom, and finding success despite a lack of radio play.
But Damn Right, Rebel Proud was a step down in quality from his previous releases, and Hank3 proceeded to take 18 months off of touring. Subsequent releases charted decently as well, but he never reached the same heights. Hank3 had been right there, right at the precipice of breaking through, and for whatever reason, lost the drive, lost the momentum, had pushed himself too hard, and had to step back.
Hellbound Glory, also finding great critical acclaim, landed the opportunity to open for Kid Rock on an arena tour, and it looked like the doors would finally start opening for them. And some doors did. But a year later, Leroy Virgil had not a single member in his band that had been around for the Kid Rock tour, and in many respects landed right back where he started. Jamey Johnson reached the very top of the industry, penning #1 songs and being nominated for big awards. But then a label dispute stopped him in his tracks, and it’s been nearly four years since he’s released an original song.
Whether the fault of the artists or others, the ninth rung of that ten rung ladder has been where these artists have stalled, one after another. And the dream, the promise of returning the balance back to country music stalls with it. Whether it’s artists losing their hunger, being hindered by the industry, or never really having a chance to begin with, the dream wasn’t fully realized. It wasn’t played out to its last, exhaustive breath. But with Sturgill Simpson, we have another opportunity.
And if something magical does happen with Sturgill Simpson, we shouldn’t see it as a shot from nowhere. George Strait just won Entertainer of the Year for both the CMA’s and ACM’s. Kacey Musgraves has been winning awards left and right. Both traditionalism and substance are resonating again in country music, despite however buried they may appear by bro-country.
The most important thing is that Sturgill Simpson keeps on growing, and that the independent community does what they can to help foster that growth. Sturgill Simpson said it best when he posted the day of the release of Metamodern Sounds:
I have said it many times and I will continue to say it, as it is the truth and I whole heartedly believe it…guys like me and the countless others others out there attempting to offer an alternative are not capable of change. We are not the catalyst of change. You guys are. We can only do our best to make the best records we are capable of but it is up to you the listener to have your voices heard. This is the only road to the true change that a lot of you I talk to at shows are seeking. If you connect with something that moves you it’s up to you to share it/burn it/ steal it/ give it away. As long as it finds and connects with as many people as possible that is all we wish for.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all for everything YOU have done and are collectively doing to make our dreams come true. It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life. With that said, we are anxiously looking forward to taking this show on the road for the rest of our lives.
Sturgill, Kevin, Miles, & Little Joe