In the music business, they call it a “moment.” Some artists go their entire careers without ever having one, even quite successful artists. A “moment” is what caused Chris Stapleton to rocket to the biggest artist in all of country music. A “moment” is what rockets the obscure to the profound. And a “moment” is what insurgent country artist Sturgill Simpson experienced late Saturday night.
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Sturgill Simpson stopped by 30 Rockefeller Plaza on Saturday (1-14) in the capacity of the musical guest for the offbeat broadcast television institution known as Saturday Night Live. In a career that has seen incredible achievement and never dreamed-before accolades for a non-radio country star, playing SNL was a distinction that had eluded Sturgill heretofore. But a nomination for the Grammy Awards’ Album of the Year, and impressive performances on NBC’s The Tonight Show, put SNL‘s booking agent and the rest of the world on alert to this burgeoning talent with a generational impact.
Opportunities are only what you make of them, and though we’ve seen other non-radio country artists grace the SNL stage lately, including Chris Stapleton and Margo Price, and other up-and-coming country stars like Maren Morris, it is Simpson’s performance that stands out as memorable, significant, impactful, and perhaps even standard setting. Folks like Margo Price, Chris Stapleton, and Jason Isbell may have walked through the door to mainstream impact without radio play, but as Sturgill Simpson illustrated Saturday night, he was the one who initially busted it down through the sheer power of creativity and performance.
The first song Sturgill played was A Sailor’s Guide to Earth‘s “Keep It Between the Lines.” Along with the nucleus of his touring band that includes Miles Miller on drums, Laur Joamets on guitar, Chuck Bartels on bass, and Bobby Emmett on keys, Sturgill Simpson had a mess of horns with him on stage—way more than the three or four he normally tours around with. The performance went from energetic to downright frenetic in moments, with Sturgill dressed all in black dancing around the stage and feeding off his fellow players.
“Keep It Between The Lines” was certainly a valiant introduction to the world that asked “Who is Sturgill Simpson?” when the Grammy nominations were released a few weeks ago, but this would be nothing compared to when Sturgill took the stage for the second performance, and ran through a sped up, slightly abridged, and overall blistering performance of the crowd-pleaser “Call To Arms.” A full 5 1/2-minute song in the studio, Sturgill axed a verse, and put the tempo off the charts to fit the song into the constricting television slot. But instead of robbing the song of its rising action and theme, it resulted in a performance like few have ever seen on the Saturday Night Live stage, or anywhere else.
When Sturgill walked out with his worn Telecaster strapped over his shoulder as opposed to his acoustic guitar, you knew it was on. Along with it’s faded paint job, the Tele was also rocking the Rebel insignia from Star Wars, perhaps an homage to the host of the episode, Felicity Jones of the recent Rogue One movie.
It was the same guitar Sturgill played when Saving Country Music first saw him perform live way back in 2011, concluding, “Sturgill Simpson is a singular talent, one of those one-in-a-million folks who is touched by the country music holy spirit, and has the vigor to fully realize his potential, and assert his solely original perspective on American music without fear.”
The key to Sturgill unleashing the full mite of his talents has always been to tap into his incredibly focused anger. You saw that in the performance of “A Call To Arms,” where he at one point knocks one of the drummer’s cymbals off the stand with his guitar’s head stock, and finished the song with a downright scowl on his face, almost like he was ready to fight the entire crowd, or they entire world if they had anything left to say after the performance he turned in.
Sturgill Simpson wasn’t just giving his best in an opportunity to ingratiate himself to a national audience and perhaps increase his chances of actually winning a Grammy come February. Sturgill was unleashing anger and frustrations for not just himself, but the legions of overlooked and under-appreciated artists and bands out there burning up pavement, and playing to empty barrooms on Saturday nights, yet evidencing incredible talent to whomever is intelligent enough to pay attention.
Sturgill Simpson wasn’t just asking for your attention, he was warning you at the folly of your apathy and ignorance. It wasn’t just a performance, it was a formal wake up call, a slap to the face to all of the minds programmed to mass media out there sucking up corporate entertainment, showing them there is an alternative, and it’s vibrant, potent, ugly sometimes, served without chaser, and profoundly real.
You thought that a guy like Sturgill Simpson doesn’t belong in the top echelons of American music, being considered right beside heavyweights like Adele and Beyoncé? That’s only because you didn’t know him yet.
And now you do.