This article has been updated.
As part of a new HBO original series entitled Vinyl, Kentucky-born songwriter and insurgent country artist Sturgill Simpson was selected to provide the theme song and anchor the soundtrack scheduled to be released 2/12. As the name implies, the 10-part series includes a strong musical component, and a deal was struck between Vinyl producers (Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger) and Sturgill Simpson’s label Atlantic Records to provide the music for the series. Set in New York City in the 1970’s, and following a struggling record executive named Richie Finestra (played by Bobby Cannavale), the music for the series needed to strike an authentic vibe to the time period selected. The first new song we’ve heard from Sturgill Simpson since the release of his breakout 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music most certainly accomplishes that stated goal for Vinyl, if nothing else.
Attentive fans of Sturgill had to know that new music would be headed in a different direction from what his first two records looked to accomplish, which was a revitalization of traditional country sounds in a more modern context. Talk of synthesizers and strong language about not wanting to be considered a country music savior meant we might be headed for a rebellion from Sturgill to break down misconceptions about who he is, and what he does. “Sugar Daddy” stretches the sonic landscape for Sturgill to explore, striking an immediate and effusive tie to the heyday of classic rock full of tape hiss, tone crunch, and heroin sweat. Yet it remains submerged in a throwback attitude that gives it a fairly intuitive transition from Sturgill’s previous body of work.
“Sugar Daddy” is directly tied to the era in popular music when American and British rock bands were heavily influenced by the sounds and authenticity of American blues. The term “sugar” referring to a woman’s love (or a woman’s other things), is and was a standard of blues nomenclature. Because of this, and even the styling and structure of “Sugar Daddy,” the song feels more interpretive than original. Though it’s more rock than traditional blues, you can definitely hear the bones of Led Zepplin III or Foghat in the song’s structure and attitude. But given the context that the song is being presented in, whether this was planned out when Sturgill was composing the song or it just happened to work that way, trying to strike a vibe instead of creating an original expression is certainly understandable, if not an essential element for the song for it to be effective for its intended purpose.
More so than most songs, it might be important to understand the context in which “Sugar Daddy” is being offered, or how it potentially may dovetail into a much more encompassing and cohesive album concept in the future, if “Sugar Daddy” even makes it onto Sturgill’s next album and is not just intended for the Vinyl soundtrack. Nonetheless, this continued adherence to the idea that music must sound fuzzy, distorted, and must be captured with antiquated technology to somehow be instilled with “soul” remains a troubling trend of the east Nashville sound. Simpson’s voice is too singular to be relying on shouting instead of singing, and Sturgill’s guitar playing (Laur Joamets apparently doesn’t play on the track) is too tasteful and respectful of melody to be leaning exclusively on tone and rhythm like this.
However, “Sugar Daddy” does what all great music does, which is awaken something in the listener. The structure of the song is smart, the transition is effective, a live feel is captured if one ever was, and the discordant ending punctuates the wild-assed, unhinged attitude that is so unfortunately lacking in the calculated and inhibited music of today.
This song is not fair to judge on its own, and needs the context of an album to fully digest. If it’s an album cut looking to cut loose at the right moment, and most certainly as the soundtrack to a 70’s based show, it is excellent. Naked and by itself, it’s cool, but nothing exceptional. So we’ll see where it lands and potentially tweak opinions accordingly in the future.
And no, there’s not a lot that’s “country” about it.
Two Guns Up (9/10) – As a theme song to a 70’s HBO series.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10) – As a naked song.