10 Badass Sturgill Simpson Moments


Once upon a time back in 2013, Saving Country Music randomly felt inclined to enumerate “10 Badass Moments” from the career of Waylon Jennings, and since then it’s been sort of a semi-regular exercise to show respect to some of the greats of country music by running down the moments that have taken their careers from good to badass. Over the last year or so, Sturgill Simpson has certainly earned that distinction as he’s gone from an independent underdog to receiving some of the top recognition in the entire music industry, and stood up to the Music Row establishment in both words and deeds.

So let’s take a look at 10 Badass Moments from the career of Sturgill Simpson.

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Serving Three Years in the United States Navy

While most modern country stars can only offer their braggadocios bluster about supporting the military and serving the country via their grandparent’s time in active duty, Sturgill Simpson actually gave a three year stint of his life to the Stars and Stripes as a member of the United States Navy.

Sturgill enlisted in the Navy before finishing his senior year in high school. He worked on a frigate in the Combat Information Center, which gave him Top Secret clearance. His job was to monitor shipping traffic in the region and report intelligence information.

Spending time in Japan while an active service member, he would make friends who would later help shoot one of his first music videos in Tokyo. Sturgill Simpson’s time on the high seas was also one of the big inspirations for his Grammy-winning 2016 record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Simpson returned to Japan in 2017 to play the Fuji Festival.

Calling Out ‘Garden & Gun’ Magazine for Kicking Merle Haggard Off The Cover

In the aftermath of Merle Haggard’s passing in April of 2016, Merle was supposed to grace the cover of Garden & Gun magazine. This is what Merle had been promised, and they had even sent a photographer to Merle’s property in Northern California to shoot photos for the cover while a reporter hung out and interviewed the country legend. Sturgill Simpson was also part of the feature, and tagged along. However last minute the editors decided to do a switcheroo, and put Chris Stapleton on the cover instead. This didn’t sit well with Sturgill Simpson to say the least.

sturgill-simpson-garden-and-gunIn an August 29th, 2016 Facebook missive, Sturgill said,

He was so excited about it and it goes without saying that I was completely beside myself along with my Grandfather who has always been a HUGE Merle fan. We spent the whole day of the interview visiting in his living room with our families and had a wonderful conversation with the journalist. Then we spent about two hours outside being photographed by a brilliant and highly respected photographer named David McClister until Merle had enough…he was still recovering from a recent bout of double pneumonia at the time and it was a bit cold that day on the ranch.

But then at the last minute, the magazine’s editor put Chris Stapleton on the cover without telling anyone until they had already gone to print. Don’t get me wrong, Chris had a great year and deserves a million magazine covers…but thats not the point.

Its about keeping your word and ethics.

Chris also knows this as he called me personally to express his disgust at the situation. Dude’s a class act.

The editor later claimed in a completely bullshit email apology to both Merle’s publicist and ours (Chris and I share the same publicist) that they didn’t get any good shots that day.
David McClister..
2 hour shoot..
no good photos..
OK buddy,..whatever you say.

Chris Stapleton also later verified the story, saying that Garden & Gun showed “bad manners.”

Calling Out The ACMs Over Merle Haggard

On August 29th of 2016, the Academy of Country Music announced they would make a ‘Merle Haggard Spirit Award’ that was said to honor the contributions of Haggard by acknowledging artists who exemplify his uncompromising integrity and “singular vision in carving an indelible path in country music.”

Sturgill Simpson took the distinction as disingenuous coming from the mainstream country music establishment, and slammed the awards in a statement.

Many years back, much like Willie and Waylon had years before, Merle Haggard said, ‘Fuck this town. I’m moving.’ and he left Nashville.

According to my sources, it was right after a record executive told him that ‘Kern River’ was a bad song. In the last chapter of his career and his life, Nashville wouldn’t call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside. I always got a sense that he wanted one last hit..one last proper victory lap of his own, and we all know deserved it. Yet it never came. And now he’s gone.

The story of Merle Haggard telling off CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn are well-documented.

Sturgill Simpson then continued…

I’m writing this because I want to go on record and say I find it utterly disgusting the way everybody on Music Row is coming up with any reason they can to hitch their wagon to his name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them. If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.

Being Nominated for the All-Genre Grammy Album of the Year

grammy-sturgill-simpsonAwards, just like sales numbers, are not always the greatest measure of quality in music. However the Grammy Awards are a bit different since they are peer voted, and have a prestige that mainstream country awards just can’t deliver. An artist like Sturgill Simpson is almost guaranteed to be nominated for genre-level Grammys since he’s so critically-revered, so it was no big shock when he was nominated for Best Country Album at the 2017 Grammys, and only a moderate surprise when he won it.

But to be nominated right beside the biggest players in all of music like Adele, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Drake for the all-genre Album of the Year is a distinction many Hall of Famers never receive, and is especially difficult for country and roots artists.

No matter what else happens in Sturgill Simpson’s career, he will forever be linked to an elite group of artists who’ve been nominated for arguably the biggest award in all of music. It is validation on the grandest of scales.

MOMENT #1 – Destroying the Stage at the Pickathon Music Festival

Whenever you study the careers of many of the artists that went on to become iconic, their ascent is often tracked back to specific “moments” where they took giant leaps forward in respect and attention. It’s Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, Chris Stapleton at the 2015 CMA Awards, or Crosby, Stills & Nash at Woodstock. Sturgill Simpson has enjoyed numerous of those moments in his career, self-manufactured from opportunities he was bestowed and made the best of.

The first Sturgill Simpson moment is what Simpson’s manager Marc Dottore gives credit for helping to launch his career. After having received a booking opportunity in his band first band Sunday Valley at the Pickathon festival in Portland, OR, Sturgill self-booked his own tour from Tennessee and back, and absolutely destroyed the stage when he arrived at the West Coast fest.

“The set ended with one of those moments you can only be there to appreciate,” Saving Country Music described at the time. “During an extended and wild rendition of their song ‘Never Go To Town Again,’ Sturgill stepped out onto a monitor speaker that he was hoping to support his weight, and it didn’t, and he instead took a dive into the crowd. The guitar cord got caught on the microphone stand, and stage chaos ensued as gear went tumbling. But Sturgill didn’t miss a beat, never stopped playing, and possessed by the country music holy ghost, eventually popped up back on stage, eyes rolled up in the back of his head, wires and music stands intertwined with his limbs, and never even acknowledged the chaos until the song was over … 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.”

Simpson manager Marc Dottre said later in an interview, “Pickathon turned out to be a watershed moment. Amazing performances. There was a kid there who writes a blog called Saving Country Music, Triggerman. He wrote this glowing review, and that sort of started the viral nature of people discovering who Sturgill was.”

MOMENT #2 – Destroying the ‘Saturday Night Live’ Stage

Now it was January of 2017, and Sturgill Simpson had an established career, and had even received high-profile nominations from the Grammy Awards for Best Country Album and the all-genre Album of the Year. But still, very few people knew who he was. That would all change when he took to stage of Saturday Night Live on January 14th, and absolutely waylaid the national audience.

The key to Sturgill unleashing the full mite of his talents has always been to tap into his incredibly focused anger, and you saw that in his performance of his second song on SNL, “A Call To Arms,” where he at one point knocks one of the cymbals of drummer Miles Miller off the stand with his guitar’s head stock, and finished the song by slamming his telecaster to the ground with a downright scowl on his face, almost like he was ready to fight the entire crowd.

Sturgill Simpson wasn’t just giving his best in an opportunity to ingratiate himself to a national audience. Sturgill was unleashing anger and frustrations for not just himself, but the legions of overlooked and under-appreciated artists and bands out there burning up pavement, and playing to empty barrooms on Saturday nights.

It wasn’t just a performance, it was a formal wake up call, and a slap to the face to all of the minds programmed to mass media out there sucking up corporate entertainment, showing them there is an alternative, and it’s vibrant, potent, ugly sometimes, served without chaser, and profoundly real.

You thought that a guy like Sturgill Simpson didn’t belong in the top echelons of American music, being considered right beside heavyweights like Adele and Beyoncé for Grammy Awards? That’s only because you didn’t know him yet. And then you did.

Though some have surmised the whole thing was contrived, according to Sturgill, he saw his keyboard player Bobby Emmett surfing on his rig, and it just unleashed at incredible amount of energy spontaneously. It also put the Grammy Awards on alert, and earned Sturgill a full, extended performance slot on primetime TV during the Grammys.

Writing One of His Signature Songs in the Shower

No matter what Sturgill Simpson did early in his career, or what he may have in store henceforth, it is a song that bridges science and enlightenment that has arguably become his signature, and forever made the tortoise synonymous with his name. “Turtles All The Way Down” from his 2014 record Metamodern Sound in Country Music is probably one of those songs he will be resigned to play for the rest of his life, and even though most assume it was written while on some sort of hallucinogenic trip, he actually wrote it in the shower while on tour.

“I remember we were doing our first tour, somewhere probably like a Red Roof Inn or Howard Johnson’s,” Sturgill explained in a Grammy Q&A June 23rd, 2016. “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.”

Being One of Merle Haggard’s Closest Friends Later in Life

One of the coolest, and most interesting parts of Sturgill Simpson’s career is the authentic friendship he struck up with Mt. Rushmore country legend Merle Haggard. As strange as it seems that such a young artist and such an old artist would find camaraderie, the friendship was sincere, and reciprocated by both sides. When Merle was no longer around to defend himself, Sturgill made sure to pipe up in Merle’s behalf (see above). And Merle often spoke fondly about Sturgill in his later years.

In an August 2015 interview with Merle Haggard in Billboard, Merle sung Sturgill’s praises, saying Sturgill was “about the only one that I can tell you I’m excited about.”

“You hear a lot of Waylon [Jennings], a lot of George [Jones],” said Haggard. “He’s got something going energy-wise that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Merle also told In Forum, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one out there. The rest of them sound like a bunch of (crap) to me.” 

Declaring The Most Outlaw Thing That A Man Can Do

Before Sturgill Simpson became Sturgill Simpson, he was in a band called Sunday Valley. Right before he went solo is when the song “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” first emerged. It would eventually end up on his debut solo album High Top Mountain in a slightly augmented form, but it still included what might be the most brilliant line Sturgill has ever written.

At a time when the bravado coming from both independent and mainstream artists about being “Outlaw” was reaching an all-time fevered pitch, with one line Sturgill Simpson was able to turn the paradigm on its head, and explain in the most brilliant of terms that being an Outlaw was not about how much of a tough guy you are. It’s about being yourself, and cutting against the grain. Most “Outlaws” would never show their sensitive or family side, but by saying, “The most Outlaw thing that a man can do is find a good woman and give her a ring,” Sturgill Simpson beat all the faux Outlaws at their own game.

“One Asshole At A Time”

Artists stopping down concert fights can often be one of the most badass moments in their career. Though on the surface it may seem like quite a mundane exercise, it often gives a glimpse into a performer’s character that you don’t get through their music, or even their regular stage banter.

There has been multiple moments like this for Sturgill, but the most memorable came to be known as “One asshole at a time.”

It was right as Sturgill Simpson was really beginning to blow up in early 2015 after the release of his record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Every concert he was booking at the large club and small theater level was selling out to capacity almost immediately. That meant crowds were packed in tight together, and not always in the greatest of music venues.

At the Madison Theater in Covington, Kentucky, Sturgill was performing his song “Sometimes Wine” when a scuffle broke out. Sturgill watched as the situation escalated, still trying to keep the song going, until it gets too out of hand. “Hold up, hold up, hold, up hold up,” Sturgill says to his band before shouting, “YOU!” And pointing out the culprit to security and the surrounding fans. “Hey hey hey. Come on now, everyone came to have a good time. It doesn’t matter who started it, all that matters is that it’s over … One asshole at a time and right now it’s my turn, so…”

Shortly thereafter the offending parties were dealt with, Sturgill Simpson and his band re-started the song, and the concert resumed. But Sturgill’s both authoritative and self-deprecating “One asshole at a time” moment became one of the signature moments of his early career.

BONUS #11 – Producing upstart Kentucky songwriter Tyler Childers’ album Purgatory.

BONUS #12 – Not just singing about railroads and trains, but actually working for the railroad for many years in Utah.

BONUS #13 – Being the authentic offspring of Kentucky coal miners, and giving back once he found success.

BONUS #14 – Fighting through physical ailments while opening for Guns & Roses, a.k.a. Blood on the Keys.

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