“All good music is soul music” — Sturgill Simpson
Being a modern day country music fan in many ways is like resigning yourself to getting your heart broken on a regular basis. All your favorite legends seem to be dying off left and right, or they have one foot in the grave, and the newest generations just aren’t replenishing the ranks of legends like they used to in previous eras. There’s also some amazing modern day artists, but then there’s the specter that seems to always hang out there above them whether they will stay country for the majority of their career, or veer off in some other direction. It seems to happen more often these days than not, from underground, independent, and Americana artists, all the way up to the mainstream. It almost makes you leery of becoming too attached to any country performer, because you run the risk of getting your heart broken in the future when they get tired of twang, and want to start dabbling in something else. Sometimes you even anticipate it happening way before it does, robbing you of some of the joy in the music.
But if you were in any way surprised by the recent announcement by Sturgill Simpson that his next record Sound & Fury is going to be a “really sleazy, steamy rock n roll record” instead of a country one, it’s fair to question just how much of a Sturgill Simpson fan you really were in the first place. He’s basically been broadcasting his intentions for the last two years, and then outright said it last November. Just watching his live shows lately, sleazy rock n roll is what he’s been showcasing. Sturgill’s last record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth wasn’t especially country either, though it could be classified as country or Americana just as much as anything else. And people seem to forget the hand-wringing that occurred in the run up to A Sailor’s Guide too. There was even some talk that it’s was going to be a full-blown EDM record.
As a country music fan, you have every right to be disappointed you’re not getting another Sturgill Simpson country record, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about that. If country is your favorite genre and you ride or die with it, this news is disappointing. And it’s especially disappointing because you know what Sturgill Simpson is capable of when he digs his teeth into country like he does, whether it’s straightforward traditional stuff like his debut High Top Mountain showcased, or a bit more loose, but still certifiably country like his magnum opus Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. His most recent song “The Dead Don’t Die” might be one of his most solid country songs of his career. Just a few weeks ago Simpson played at the Grand Ole Opry, and showed off his Kentucky roots by putting on a blazing bluegrass set.
But as disappointed as you might be as a country music fan over this recent Sturgill development, we’re also all music fans first, before our tastes break down genre lines, or at least we should be. Perhaps it’s a little selfish of Sturgill to go veering of into whatever direction he decides to while established fans who bought into his country music career get left behind, but it’s just as selfish for fans to not want him to pursue his passions in music, wherever they may take him. So Sturgill’s next album won’t be country at all. Well now since that ship has sailed, our next concern should be if it’s going to be any good, and approach it with an open mind, as either music fans, or Sturgill fans, or even country fans, and see where it takes us. If we don’t like it, we don’t have to listen. And it’s not like Sturgill hasn’t also been dropping just many hints that eventually he’s going to make another straightforward country record again similar to how he was dropping hints that Sound & Fury was going to be a rock one.
And no, Sturgill Simpson making a rock record isn’t the equivalency of some mainstream country artist veering out of their lane into pop and rock and catching hell for it by country fans, because Sturgill is being open and honest that it’s not country as opposed to either lying to us, or preaching to us about how music must evolve and genre doesn’t matter. It’s not like this is unprecedented territory either. From Willie Nelson’s Stardust record, to Linda Ronstadt going rock, important artists in the country space have regularly experimented with other genres, or outright left, without injuring their contributions and legacy to country music if they do it right, and if they leave a respect for country music and what it did for their careers in tact.
And for the love of everything, quit saying, “If you’re saving country music, why do you keep talking about Sturgill Simpson if he’s not country?” Have you been paying attention to what’s been happening in country music for the last six or seven years? There has been a revolution in independent country music, and Sturgill Simpson has arguably been the primary catalyst for it. He’s a Grammy Country Album of the Year winner. He was nominated for the all genre Grammy for Album of the Year right beside Beyonce, Adele, Justin Bieber, and Drake. It was Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that inspired Chris Stapleton to cut a record live with Dave Cobb, and resulted in all of his success. And this speaks nothing to producing Tyler Childers, and all the success the fellow Kentuckian has seen, along with the other artists Sturgill has helped out along the way.
And all this comes from a guy who started his career opening for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. Why is Saving Country Music still talking about Sturgill Simpson? Because Saving Country Music was the very first to talk about him, started on the very ground floor, believed in him and went to bat for him when few others were, and watched him rise throughout his career. There’s a deep history here that you just can’t walk away from. Everything we always hoped and believed could be accomplished by our favorite independent country artists was accomplished and more by Sturgill Simpson. He made it to the very top of the mountain, which may be one of the reasons he’s searching out new challenges in different territory.
So yeah, it’s sad when as a country fan, one of your favorite artists goes away from the sound and style that made you fall in love with them. You committed to them, you believed and bought in. And let’s be honest, some of the bellyaching about Sturgill has nothing to do with the music, but with some of the things Sturgill has said politically which rubbed some of his country fans the wrong way. And just like Simpson not making a country record, some of those concerns are fair and warranted. But don’t be selfish as a country music fan. Be willing to share Sturgill with the rest of the music world. Be open to whatever music he chooses to record, regardless of the genre, because doing otherwise puts an unnecessary limitation on your musical experience, just like only listening to one genre only. And hopefully Sturgill finds his way back eventually. Because we all know, his home is country. In fact, when taking a step back and looking at the arc of his career, that ultimately might be what he’s trying to express. Sometimes you’ve got to read between the lines instead of just turning the page.