When I started Saving Country Music in 2008, one of the founding goals was to turn the tables on the order that decided what performers were allowed to benefit from the institutions of popular media such as radio, television, charts, mainstream websites, and awards shows. It seemed like such an injustice that the amazingly-talented artists in the country and roots underground were relegated to playing bars for only a handful of folks, while the hacks of the mainstream were given such unadulterated access to the masses.
It took the better part of a decade to upset that apple cart, and when we first started that long and difficult ascent, it was very present of mind that our ultimate goal might possibly never be realized. Who seriously thought that products of an underground music scene or independent labels would ever be considered for the top distinctions at the Grammy Awards, or get to play Saturday Night Live? Yet now we are living in a moment where such opportunities are being doled out on a regular basis, and not just to one artist, but to a host of independent-minded, radio-ignored country and roots stars like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, The Alabama Shakes, and Jason Isbell, all of whom feel like they’re on the verge of superstardom themselves, while Chris Stapleton is already there.
So here we are, having spent nearly a decade climbing up the face of a mountain we thought we may never reach the apex of, and what is one of the last obstacles we’re facing? The small, but very vocal minority of independent and underground fans that not only seem to resent this newfound success for the top level of independent acts, but who are speaking out in strong opposition to their success, and would undermine it if possible.
A long perspective gained by zooming out from the present tense is necessary here. If 10 years ago someone had told you that eventually country artists who have never seen significant radio play would be earning #1 records on the Billboard Country Albums chart, or receiving major Grammy nominations, you would have called them crazy. In fact many people did when these goals for independent artists were laid out those many years ago. We were told charts and awards were insignificant, and the industry would never let independent artists into their exclusive club. 10 years ago, we would have been tickled to death, and felt incredibly lucky and privileged if any of our favorite artists would even be considered for major industry distinctions. We wouldn’t be concerned if the candidate wasn’t country enough, or wasn’t 100% the perfect choice in our minds.
Yet this is what is dogging Sturgill Simpson as he finds a second wind behind the release of his latest album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and as it prepares to go to battle with names like Adele, Beyoncé, and Justin Bieber for the Grammy’s Album of the Year, and is also a front runner for Country Album of the Year.
I can remember when I was in middle and high school and how I hated on the popular music of the day for no other reason than it was popular. I understand, trust me. This wrongful mindset is the bane of the audiophile, and is so very common. For some reason, the more popular music gets, the worse it sounds to many of the people that make up the very grassroots that independent and underground artists need to grow towards success in lieu of aid of the radio or popular media. It’s a common theme throughout music—a band gets big and it turns off their core fans base. It’s because as an independent fan, you don’t want to fight through big crowds to see your favorite artists. You love the sense of exclusivity between you and your friends and your favorite bands when the fan base hovers around the hundreds. You’ve learned to distrust and disapprove of the industry. But this is also one of the reasons it’s difficult for independent music to sustain its prominence in the mainstream once it gets there.
I also understand the frustration of some country music fans that all of this stuff is happening for Sturgill Simpson only after he put out his most non-country record yet. As I have said before, you have every right to be disappointed that Sturgill Simpson didn’t release a full-blown country record. But as a fan of Sturgill Simpson, of independent-minded music, of the cause of every underground artist to find enough attention for their art to be able to make a sustainable living from it, you should be celebrating these moments of success, because so many have worked so hard to achieve them, and as history reminds us, they can be incredibly fleeting.
Sturgill Simpson’s success isn’t his own, it is all of ours: the independent country and roots artists, the fans, the venues, the festivals, the managers and booking agents, the indie labels that have clawed forward for years hoping that just one of their artists could break through the oligarchical stonewall that is supposed to keep artists like Sturgill Simpson out of the top echelons of music. Regardless if he’s your ideal champion, he is one of us, and one of you; an underdog, a malcontent, and somehow he made to the top.
Yet I’ve seen people say his recent album is no better than Sam Hunt since it isn’t pure country, or saying that if we’re happy with the success of Sturgill, we must re-evaluate our hatred for Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line because Sturgill’s ostensibly no different now. Others are questioning the charge of Saving Country Music for championing Sturgill after he so clearly let us all down, not understand that this is an artist we’ve been championing for nearly seven years now.
Are Beyoncé fans crying foul and going rogue because she released an album that purportedly includes a country song and a rock song? Are her fans tearing her down because she disrespected her native genre? Are they crying, “That’s not pop and hip-hop”? Are they saying the distinctions for her are meaningless because she’s not their ideal candidate to succeed and it should be someone else? No, the pop and hip-hop communities are rallying behind Beyoncé because she’s their champion, and that’s their job as hip-hop fans, just as it’s the job of country and independent fans to rally behind Sturgill Simpson.
If you liked Sturgill Simpson’s first two records, regardless of how you feel about A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and you can’t be happy that is Saturday Night Live performance went viral, or that he’s contending for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, or even more so if all this stuff makes you angry, then you will never be happy in music. You will always feel like the industry is short changing you and your favorite artists. There is a lot of pride in anger and being the everlasting underdog, I know. But if you can’t feel a sense of achievement here, you never will.
Sturgill Simpson hasn’t only said he intends to make more country records, he’s said, “In 10 years I’ll be the biggest country star on this planet. … And there’s nothing they can do to stop that.” And if you doubt Sturgill Simpson at his word, then you have no idea about the kernel of passion inside of him that has put him this far ahead of the curve already. As someone who’s followed Sturgill Simpson’s career from the depths of obscurity to today, I still believe his biggest moments and best music lay in the future.
So the dude took a side junket on his country music career to make a record for his son and family. Nail him to the cross for crying out loud. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth did not make Saving Country Music’s Top 10 in 2016 (though it did make the Top 20). Sure, it would have been nice if all of this acclaim would have come for one of his first two records. But that isn’t going to stop me from rooting for him come Grammy night, even though it’s almost certain he will lose (unless the Dark Horse theory emerges).
Nonetheless, I will cheer, I will be happy. Because ten years ago we couldn’t fathom moments like these. And with the fickleness of the music industry and the fleeting nature of success, you may not ever get chances like this again.