The nomination of Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by the Grammy Awards for Album of the Year is not just about Sturgill Simpson. It is, but it isn’t. Obviously he deserves the credit for writing, composing, and performing the album that has become the critic’s pick for one the best of this last calendar year, but it’s the result of years and years of work by many individuals and entities that insisted that country and roots music could be done a different way than the well-ordered, stodgy, oligarchical approach of Nashville’s Music Row that have allowed Sturgill Simpson and his musical efforts to prosper.
For years, underground artists, independent labels, and other entities have been laboring at the task of putting the control of country music back in the hands of the artists. This was the philosophy behind the Outlaw movement in country in the mid 70’s. This is the philosophy behind Nashville’s pseudo-label Thirty Tigers, where Sturgill Simpson released his first two records. Thirty Tigers allows artists to call their own shots, and keep control of their masters. Even when Sturgill moved to his current home of Atlantic Records, he was able to do so from a position of power from his success on Thirty Tigers so he was granted the ability to make his own musical decisions, and the unleashing of that creativity is what resulted in the accolades he was awarded by the Grammys.
Arguably just as surprising as the resounding victories by Sturgill Simpson just to be nominated for Album of the Year and Best Country Album, is the nominations for Bloodshot Recording artist Robbie Fulks, who finds himself on the receiving end of considerations for Best Folk Album for his record Upland Stories, and Best American Roots Song for “Alabama At Night.” I know what you’re thinking: How can these rink dink categories measure up to getting nominated for Album of the Year? But in this case it’s not the “what,” but the “who.”
“This is much bigger than me,” Sturgill Simpson said to The New York Times Tuesday after the nominations came down. “I don’t really feel like I did this, in a way.”
What Sturgill is alluding to by saying “This is much bigger than me” is that he has a independent-minded team behind him, and he’s carrying on the work started by artists like Robbie Fulks, and his label Bloodshot Records founded by Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller back in 1993. “Insurgent Country” is what they called it at the time, and the label’s first release was titled For A Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country. Robbie Fulks appeared on that compilation, along with other insurgent country artists looking to stake their claim in country, but in a different way than what the mainstream country industry would allow.
Bloodshot Records would go on to help launch the careers of Ryan Adams, Neko Case, and The Old 97’s just to name a few, and all of a sudden there was an alternative to the intrusive environment in Nashville for country-inspired artists.
For years these artists have been banging on doors, chipping away at walls, and slowly but surely they have been winning more and more acceptance from the mainstream industry as viable artists who’ve been systematically overlooked. The DIY spirit that governs these artists and labels has been at the very core of this movement. Robbie Fulks—a folk and bluegrass player who once was a member of The Special Consensus—spent four years attempting to be a songwriter for Music Row, mostly to no avail, aside from his experience inspiring the rollicking protest song “Fuck This Town.” Fulks, like Sturgill Simpson and others, spoke to the anger the artist were feeling at the restrictive environment that permeated country music.
In the early 2000’s, artists like Hank Williams III, Shooter Jennings, and Justin Townes Earle added familiar names and fresh blood to the movement. Shooter Jennings is who introduced Sturgill Simpson to producer Dave Cobb. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music—produced by Dave Cobb—is what inspired Chris Stapleton to record Traveller. Traveller—produced by Dave Cobb—continues to be one of the biggest records released in country music in years, and received its own nomination for Album of the Year by the Grammys 12 months ago.
For Robbie Fulks to now be recognized by a prestigious industry awards apparatus nearly 25 years after being a founding part of the nascent country music insurgency, and for Sturgill Simpson’s name to be placed right beside Adele, Drake, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé for Album of the Year consideration, speaks to just how far the effort has come to put the control of country music back into the hands of its artists.
When Sturgill Simpson came on to the scene, there was already 20 years of work and momentum behind his back; 40 years if you count the Outlaws. Insurgent, underground, independent country fans were already looking for their next champion, and he fit the bill. He took the reigns from artists like Bobby Bare, Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings, Robbie Fulks, Ryan Adams, Hank Williams III, and ran with them.
Neither Robbie nor Sturgill may win anything come February, but that’s almost irrelevant at this point. The country music insurgency has reached to the very top of the entertainment industry’s temple, without the help of radio, and without the benefit of the zeitgeist or pop cultural hype. Instead these victories have been won through the sheer appeal if the music’s creative vibrancy, and the zeal of its grassroots support. And most importantly—and possibly most dangerously for Music Row—folks aren’t just paying attention to Robbie Fulks, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Jason Isbell, they’re paying attention to how they got here—namely, without the support of Music Row.