Yeah, I know. I know. I don’t need you to tell me how not country Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is. I don’t want to hear how horn sections have no place in country music. Did you happen to notice the name of this website as you navigated here? Don’t think the country-ness of A Sailor’s Guide hasn’t been a hot topic of discussion in this corner of the internet in the past to the point of being volleyballed back and forth ad nauseum. And I don’t care if you happen to think that Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was a better record. This isn’t an album award, it is an artist award. It’s also my award. And I will give it to whomever I damn well please.
For outstanding efforts and noble achievement in the realm of country music in 2016, Saving Country Music has come to the solemn conclusion that Sturgill Simpson is the 2016 Saving Country Music Artist of the Year. This is a distinction that is handed out not as a default, or as a lazy, easy, or obvious choice, though it may seem that way to some. A lot of thought, and frankly, a little bit of trepidation preceded this decision, including from the fact that Sturgill’s most recent recorded effort was a slight departure from the country sound, which is not an indictment of the effort itself (we’re all music fans first, and then our loyalties break down genre lines), but it certainly isn’t the trajectory most take to securing a country award. But this choice is the right one, because despite whatever reservations some country music purists may have with Sturgill, it was his efforts beyond the music, but for the music, that earned him this distinction.
“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,” Sturgill Simpson said on August 29th, 2016, in a scathing missive that sent shock waves and reverberations throughout the country music world, including in the finely appointed offices of the mainstream country music establishment. Sturgill also took on Garden & Gun for pulling a bait and switch at Merle Haggard’s expense with one of their 2016 cover stories.
Whether you think Sturgill’s comments were perfect, patent, or too pointed, they put the topic of how country music’s traditional legends are treated at the very top of the public discussion docket, and put the industry on alert that their actions would not go unanswered for another year. The truth is, artists like Dale Watson and Whitey Morgan say similar things on nearly a daily basis. Sites like Saving Country Music and others write similar opinions with predictable rapidity. But they’re just part of the everyday noise that may help spread the awareness of what’s going on in country, but ultimately blends into the background in 24 hours or less.
But Sturgill Simpson’s words resonated, because they were from Sturgill Simpson. It underscores once again that country music will never be saved by Facebook pages, protest songs, or websites, but the words of the right artists at the right time who are willing to sacrifice their standing in the insular country music industry by having the audacity to speak the truth unfiltered. It’s not just about Sturgill Simpson going all sour grapes. It’s that his words mattered in the grand scheme. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it was coincidence that three months later the 2016 CMA Awards opened with a Merle Haggard song and an extended medley of classic country covers as opposed to the usual cross genre teaser and pyrotechnic extravaganza usually commenced with to lure in the widest possible audience.
One pissed off Facebook missive is not enough to crown someone Artist of the Year though. It’s what transpired afterwards that took Sturgill from sort of meandering after he’d wrapped his A Sailor’s Guide tour, to being nominated for Album of the Year by the Grammy Awards. Again, I don’t care if you think that it should have been Metamodern Sounds receiving the Album of the Year nomination. It wasn’t, and we don’t possess Marty McFly’s time machine to solve that. The Grammy Awards have always worked in arrears with non-radio artists. The important thing is that they eventually did recognize Sturgill’s efforts, and now everyone else is doing the same as this upstaging nominee has everyone asking “Who is Sturgill?” and wondering if he could actually win in a crowded field that could cancel each other out.
Whether Sturgill wins in February or not, the damage has been done. The rest of the music industry now knows what the rest of us have been trying to tell them for the last 10 years: There’s an amazing talent pool of artists living in the shadow of Music Row that if just given a chance, will shine and even excel on the national stage. Chris Stapleton—who Sturgill helped open the door for—proved that, and now Sturgill himself is. The losers and forgotten are now the winners. And it’s all because Sturgill Simpson had the audacity to follow his heart, both on and off the stage, to help lead country music out of the morass it has been stuck in for decades.
It’s all because one man was finally given the creative authority to do what he wanted with his music, and more importantly, he did something that resonated beyond his own, humble little audience. And are you honestly going to argue against all that just because you have some mealy-mouthed protestation about the appropriateness of horns in country? I know what Bob Wills, Lyle Lovett, The Mavericks, and Merle Haggard would have to say about that, but that’s beside the point. Yes, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is not strictly a country record, but it’s also not as non country as some would love to argue. And save your screeds about how Saving Country Music is in the back pocket of the Sturgill camp. Aside from being one of the guy’s early champions, Saving Country Music easily remains one of his staunchest critics. But at some point you just have to shut the hell up and recognize greatness and achievement.
Yes, some would have loved a more country effort from Sturgill on this last go ’round. But let’s not let that cloud our judgement on just what an impact this man had on the music in 2016, turning a scathing rant into a late-year rally, and ultimately into a historic run that has him competing for the top distinction in all of music right beside Adele and Beyoncé. Do you remember seeing Sturgill Simpson with seven other people in a small bar on a Sunday night? I do. And watching his climb has been an inspiring story and an exercise in belief in ones self, and the possibility of what can happen when true, generational talent is allowed to flourish.