Sturgill Simpson Isn’t Being Outlaw. He’s Just Being an Asshole

This story has been updated.

The arena tour pairing Sturgill Simpson with Tyler Childers commences today (2-21) in Birmingham, Alabama, and ahead of the tour, Sturgill Simpson has given a slew of high profile interviews where he’s basically gone scorched earth, discounting his former producer Dave Cobb, fellow Dave Cobb-produced artist Chris Stapleton, his current label Elektra, his previous label Thirty Tigers, as well as many of his fans, his previous persona, his debut solo album High Top Mountain, The Grammy Awards, the entire music industry as a whole, and his give a shits about the upcoming tour that folks have paid their hard earned money to attend.

“We’re going on a damn-near sold out arena tour. This is literally the first time I’ve lifted a finger to fucking promote the record or the tour,” he starts off the interview with Steven Hyden of Uproxx in an article posted on Thursday (2-20).

But this is not true at all.

Sturgill made multiple public appearances and gave numerous interviews ahead of the release of his latest record Sound & Fury and this tour, including an appearance on the biggest podcast in the world, the Joe Rogan Experience on September 30th, 2019 where he announced the tour, an appearance at an anime convention on July 21st of 2019 where he announced the album, and appearance on the Beats 1 podcast with Zane Lowe where he debuted the first song on the album, among other appearances. Sturgill also played a series of club shows on the east and west coast. He also appeared for 1 1/2 hours on the Trillbilly Worker’s Podcast that was released on Sunday (2-16), but perhaps he recording it after the Uproxx interview.

But that’s beside the point. It’s what Sturgill said in the Uproxx interview, and some of what he said on the Trillbilly podcast that has everyone stirred.

Perhaps first and foremost to point out is that it appears Sturgill Simpson is very much lukewarm about this upcoming tour, and the one he played previously, and the new record he’s touring behind for that matter.

As we proceed here, please understand everything is being paraphrased. I’m not going to plagiarize the Uproxx interview, so go read it for the full context.

“So, I got talked into going out, playing a bunch of shows in 2017, when I was already burnt-out and exhausted. I wish I could give anybody’s money back who came to those shows, man, because my head was so far out of that … The worst part now is we made the record and then I spent a year and a half going back to Japan and making the film. So, now I’m completely burnt out on the record. I literally can’t listen to it … It’s very weird now, wrapping my head around the fact that I have to go out and sing these songs every night for 52 shows, because I’m so far out of that headspace that I almost can’t even remember how I got there … I just know that it’s going to be really hard to connect with people that are sitting 300 yards away. I like theaters. You can still rock a theater out. But to me, as a guy who spent so much of his musical life in smaller clubs, it’s going to take me a week or two to wrap my head around.”

So if Sturgill Simpson is ho hum on playing live and in arenas, why did he book the tour? Sturgill also revealed during this specific topic that he had fallen back into substance abuse in 2017, and that he doesn’t ever plan to tour again, at least at this moment. He also later softens his stance on the upcoming tour, a bit at least.

“So, this tour is really a celebration of the music and the fans and everything that’s happened, especially the band. Some way for us to go out and show this music and the creation the respect it deserves. But then, I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again.” 

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Sturgill Simpson then says of his major label deal, “I don’t talk to the record company. It’s really that simple. Or, maybe if you don’t want to be on a record label anymore, you make a record they can’t market, then you get them to spend a million bucks on an animation film and refuse to promote it, and leave them holding this giant un-recouped debt. Maybe the bean counters will make a decision for me. I can go back to just doing it myself better than they do. That’s what I’ve learned. Because they don’t know what the fuck to do with me. I’m done. I’m done. Unless they drop me, I’m done. I’m not going to give them anything ever again, so I guess I’m done.”

But this isn’t an “outlaw” move, this is an asshole move. Throughout this interview, Sturgill Simpson talks about how money has corrupted the music system. But he himself admits to using his major label deal to abscond with a huge signing bonus to pay his way through life, and then purposely dogging their efforts to recoup their investment. This isn’t Big Machine Records. His current label Elektra Records is the same imprint The Highwomen, Brandi Carlile, and Anderson East are on. And Sturgill Simpson taking the big payday and then not trying to live up to his end of the bargain is only going to discourage the label from signing up-and-coming talent in the future who may burn them just like Sturgill Simpson did here. They believed in him, and in his career and expressions, funded them to Sturgill’s benefit, and now his attitude is to tell them to fuck off.

Sturgill Simpson later says, “I’m done working for them. I’m done giving babies away. I equate it to, if you owned a fucking dry cleaners, and it took off, and somebody showed up like, ‘Hey, we want to buy your dry cleaners. You can sit here and run the counter, but we’ll keep all the money.’ Like, what other business model would anybody fucking think that makes sense in? And honestly, I don’t really see what they’ve done that I couldn’t have done myself, probably better. They haven’t delivered on any of their promises, so I’m fucking done there. But they wanted me to promote the tour, so here we are.”

He admits earlier in the interview that he conned them into making a million-dollar anime film and then refused to promote it. So really, who is not living up to their promises here? Most certainly as a major label, Elektra probably is difficult to work with, but Sturgill appears to be provocative here without a lot of motive. He’s speaking candidly, so if Elektra took advantage of him somehow, he certainly would tell us. But it seems to be more about the philosophical approach of the music business as opposed to any specific beef Sturgill Simpson has with the label.

Numerous other asshole moves come up in the interview, including downgrading Chris Stapleton, his record Traveller, and the organic nature of his success.

“But a major label, the people that worry about bottom lines and quarterly reports, they’ll never understand why my career really happened, because that’s not the world they navigate. The following year ‘Traveller’ happened, the Chris Stapleton breakthrough, which was very much an insider thing. Chris is a very talented guy, but that happened because they directly benefited from it.”

He then lashes out at Dave Cobb, who produced both of Sturgill Simpson’s first two records, along with Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, which was directly inspired by Sturgill’s Metamodern Sounds.

“I don’t really ever want to work with a producer again, having done it and knowing what a struggle it can be. Because they all have their agenda, which is trying to make money or sell this commercialized version of what they think you are. [Dave Cobb] worked on ‘Metamodern’ but those songs were carved out when we were on the road, with my band. He got all the credit and career from it, but that’s my album. Anybody that’s heard my last few records, I think it’s pretty fucking clear.”

Continuing, Sturgill also takes additional swipes at Dave Cobb, Chris Stapleton, and discounts his debut solo album, High Top Mountain.

“In that instance [with High Top Mountain], I definitely felt like there wasn’t really much interest in who I was really wanting to be. So, we made a Waylon Jennings record, and I’ve been trying to shake that shit off ever since. I can’t fucking listen to it. It’s so slick and clean … I can play those songs live and still love them, but I can’t listen to that record. It was a commercial record disguised as a traditional album, and to my ears, it’s just too fucking safe. So, with ‘Metamodern,’ we got real unsafe. I mean, to my eyes, the ‘Traveller’ record Cobb did with Stapleton was a commercial country record disguised as a traditional record. Chris is a phenomenal talent, but live it’s just so much more pleasing to me than what sonically that record was.”

Sturgill also took on the Grammy Awards, and inadvertently, his original label Thirty Tigers.

“All that Grammy shit, that was [the label] trying to get return on investment. I would have never been nominated for Album Of The Year if I put that album out on Thirty Tigers, and I know that for a fucking fact because I know those secret committees exist, and that’s all them trying to service themselves. It really had nothing to do with me … It’s all horseshit. It’s so unimportant.”

A couple of points of clarification are needed here. First, Sturgill Simpson won Grammy Awards. He was carrying his Grammy for Best Country Album when he busked out in front of the CMA Awards in 2017, so it must have meant something to him at the time. But now that same award is meaningless to him, as is the organization that awarded it.

As for these secret committees, it’s a separate issue to be broached in the future, but the reason the members are secret is so that the industry does not lobby them for favors or votes, same as the decision makers for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and many other institutions. Is there corruption in the Grammy system? There likely is. But there is a specific reason the decision makers are kept secret, and it’s to guard against corruption, and for good reason.

As for downgrading the ability for Thirty Tigers artists to attain Grammy Awards, that’s just untrue. Jason Isbell alone has four of them on Thirty Tigers, and Patty Griffin just won one a few weeks ago for Best Folk Album released on Thirty Tigers. Does Sturgill get nominated for the all genre Album of the Year Grammy without a major label deal? Perhaps not. But he also did not win that. Also, Thirty Tigers is one of the few labels that allows artists to own their own masters, and allows artists to leave any time. That is how Sturgill Simpson was able to leave and sign his major deal. If Sturgill thinks the music industry was so evil, why did he leave Thirty Tigers in the first place? Perhaps he’s trying to allude that Thirty Tigers isn’t evil enough to manipulate the Grammy system. But in the effort, he also makes it seem like the label doesn’t have any muscle for its artists when it comes to awards, which simply isn’t true. Jason Isbell was also nominated for a CMA Award on Thirty Tigers—something we thought we’d never see.

But arguably the most troubling comments from Sturgill were not included in the Uproxx interview. They come from his interview on the Trillbillies Podcast, where he admitted that during the Metamodern Sounds era, when he called out the ACMs for disrespecting Merle Haggard, and other such moments, it was all marketing. In other words, he never believed in defending the roots of country music. He was just playing into the image he thought the public wanted from him to sell records.

“If they’re gonna make me be that guy, then I’m just gonna fucking be that guy,” he said of his “Outlaw” attitude of that time. “Because there’s money to be made there too. So I did, I just started taking pisses and shitting every time I opened my mouth, really out of self-amusement.”

In many respects, it was these words and actions by Sturgill Simpson that had Saving Country Music awarding him the Artist of the Year not once, but twice. Now he’s admitting it was just to make money, which Sturgill says is the evil of the music industry? Is all the quotes we’re seeing from the Uproxx and Trillbillies interviews just marketing too?

The saddest part is that many will come to Sturgill Simpson’s defense, praising him as a badass, and a tell-it-like-it-is misanthrope who is refreshing in his honesty. But that’s only if you buy into the idea this isn’t an element of marketing in itself.

Where is the gratefulness from Sturgill Simpson for being able to make a good living and provide for his family through music, which is a privilege, and one that Sturgill Simpson has benefited from more than 99% of other working musicians, including to the point where he can go scorched earth, and doesn’t have to worry about the ramifications because his mortgage is paid on his 150-acre ranch with a house on top of a mountain that was paid for by the same industry he says screwed him over? Where’s the appreciation for all the people who got him to this point, including Dave Cobb and Thirty Tigers who worked with him when he was a nobody, the Grammy Awards which shined a spotlight on him and his career, and the country fans who helped fund his dreams, and the folks who bought a ticket to one of his upcoming shows hoping for a good time?

No doubt that the music business is an evil industry, and Saving Country Music was founded on that very fact. But by attacking Dave Cobb, downgrading Chris Stapleton and Thirty Tigers, lashing out at The Grammy Awards and Elektra Records which bankrolled his album and anime obsession, Sturgill Simpson is burning his own village down. And sure, there are some elements of truth in what he’s saying, which he is exploiting for his own self-gratitude. But after his revelation that he never really gave a shit about country music when he stood up for it, and that it was all an element of marketing, it’s hard to take anything this guy is saying seriously.

This “shitting out of his mouth” to use Sturgill’s own words is not something to be condoned, neither is taking a ho hum attitude towards a tour that fans who don’t have the luxury of telling their bosses off will be spending their hard earned money to attend.

This is all disappointing, and very injurious to the grassroots side of the music industry.

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