Sturgill Simpson and his busking set outside of the CMA Awards will be forever etched into not just the memory of the 51st Annual CMA Awards, it will be ensconced into the annals of country music history as one of the greatest moments of protest against the country music command and control structure of all time. In a word, it was historic. Country fans will be talking about it for generations, long after the memory of who won Single of the Year in 2017, or who performed the opening song are summarily forgotten, and filed to Wikipedia. And no matter how you feel about what Sturgill did, or what he said, the truth of Sturgill’s impact is universal, and will be forged through the unwavering force of time, good or bad. It’s Johnny Cash kicking out the footlights. It’s Alan Jackson launching into “Choices” from “Pop A Top.” In fact often these instances don’t diminish as memories fail, they’re magnified from being referenced back upon fondly so many times that eventually the myth precedes the actuality of the moments. It becomes legend.
However Sturgill’s antics outside the the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville weren’t purely a moment of protest. Most assuredly, there was that element. With his 2017 Grammy for Best Country Album in tow, Sturgill exposed the CMA’s skewed process simply by his presence outside the building instead of inside of it. But Sturgill didn’t take the moment to trash the CMAs. He had little to anything discouraging to say about them in fact. If anything, he let them off the hook, saying it might be his fault for not being considered for awards by not filing the proper paperwork. He also complimented a few of the artists involved, including Jason Isbell who was nominated for Album of the Year, Chris Stapleton who eventually walked away with Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, Miranda Lambert who won Female Vocalist of the Year and had one of the greatest performances all night with the ultra-traditional “To Learn Her,” and even Keith Urban, who’s been an outspoken fan of Sturgill in the past.
It wasn’t as much of a protest as it was an upstaging, or Sturgill making his own stage when one wasn’t afforded to him by the CMAs. This has been one of the most profound skills and hallmarks of Sturgill Simpson’s career—taking a lack of opportunity, and making the most of it. Like Sturgill said at one point during the live feed outside the Bridgestone, “I’m only in competition with myself,” because he’s side-stepped all of the barriers that usually saddle independent-minded artists from being able to achieve their goals, including being dependent upon awards for attention. Sturgill made his own opportunity, and then succeeded within that opportunity, at least in the goals he looked to accomplish.
Sturgill was there explicitly to answer any question posed to him. That was the underlying initiative behind the exercise due to the requests the CMA had made of media to steer clear of certain political subjects when asking questions of artists on the red carpet—a request they later walked back. So to that extent, you can’t fault Sturgill for answering the questions posed to him, and doing so with brutal honestly, even when they veered into the political realm, if not especially when they did. In fact, for his efforts to be effective, it was imperative Sturgill answer the political questions, and pull no punches.
But the maxim still remains that if a music artist broaches divisive political subjects, especially with the kind of heavy hand and lack of subtlety that Sturgill employed that evening, then you’re going to alienate elements of your fan base—something which has come clearly into focus in the aftermath. This is not to say that artists can’t speak out on political matters, or even that they shouldn’t. But from an economic point-of-view, doing so limits the scope of their audience, fair or not, and now more than ever in this politically-charged environment.
Where throngs of supporters watched along and rallied behind Sturgill during his 45-minute live feed, others were revolted when Sturgill lashed out at President Trump, saying, “…anybody who’s still supporting that guy can’t be anything in my mind but an ignorant fucking bigot. So there it is. Anybody that’s surprised to hear me say that is going to unfollow me or stop listening to my record was probably not listening that close anyway.”
Many Sturgill Simpson fans took specific offense to being called an “ignorant fucking bigot” by someone they saw previously as one of their heroes. As Sturgill said, nobody should be taken by surprise by the slant of Sturgill’s politics, but to specifically single out the Trump supporters within his own fan base and insult them seemed especially coarse. If you feel Trump’s policies and principles are misguided, and since Trump needs the support of the population to implement them, why not attempt to persuade those individuals to see what you believe to be the error in their judgement, and do so with discourse as opposed to repel them with insult, especially if you already have their ear as fans?
What do you expect to gain aside from purging certain elements from your fan base to go be Trump supporters somewhere else, or even become more entrenched in their belief system after being insulted? Is this about changing the world, or changing the makeup of your crowd? Why not let the nuance of message filter through your music—as Sturgill was already doing—to an audience who might be receptive as opposed to repulsed?
Sturgill Simpson is in a unique position where when he speaks, people listen. If he proved nothing else during the 2017 CMA Awards, he proved that he needs no forum but the sound of his voice and a little technology for amplification to command an incredible audience. It is very possible that in regards to media coverage, Sturgill Simpson himself was on par with the CMA Awards in 2017 for the amount of ink they each received. The CMAs had the eyes, but Sturgill Simpson had the ears.
Yet the focus on Sturgill’s actions should not be solely on his politics, of which made up only a small portion of the event. Among many other things, Sturgill Simpson’s live feed from the CMA Awards might be the best, and most candid and revealing interview he’s ever given in his career, and may never to be bested in the future. And it’s not because it was conducted by some skilled journalist (though music journalist Adam Gold deserves an assist for operating the camera phone and reading the questions), it’s because the questions were coming from Strugill Simpson fans themselves, and Sturgill was responding directly to them. The filters of bullshit that hold the truth back in modern music journalism, especially for an unusual and introverted artist like Simpson, had all been stripped back. Sturgill even remarked about his frustrations and failings with interviews during the event. They were your questions, and Sturgill Simpson’s honest answers.
There was a remarkable amount of information about Sturgill’s current and future plans in music revealed in the exchanges, as well as piecing together clues from his efforts of years past, making for a smorgasbord of revelations from an otherwise immensely private and unconventional artist. Naked of the political discourse, this stuff would have been received like a universal godsend. The fact that folks glossed over all of that information to focus on a few sentences about politics speaks deeply to the skewed priorities of today’s politically-charged society. If you counted yourself a Sturgill Simpson fan before the event and shoved everything else aside to be incited by his political discourse, you’re missing the point of being a music fan.
That’s not to say you don’t have the right to be disappointed or angry, whether it’s about Sturgill’s political revelations, or the fact that there is a good chance his next record won’t be that country at all. If you’re a Trump fan, Sturgill Simpson specifically asked you to purge yourself from the ranks of his listeners in very pointed language, and in no uncertain terms. He wants you to be angry with him. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool country fan, Sturgill Simpson has left little room for interpretation, and has now broken your heart more than once. As a country fan, you have every right to be disappointed that it appears Sturgill’s heart is not in country anymore, at least when it comes to the direction of new music. And don’t ever feel like you have to justify to anyone why you’re a country fan first. But that doesn’t mean Sturgill is obligated to you as an artist to serve your very specific interests at the detriment of what he sees as his creative path.
Plain and simple, Sturgill Simpson seems perfectly fine to sever ties, and even alienate individuals if necessary to move forward. But Sturgill isn’t unaware of these side-effects and consequences. He’s hyper aware of them. Stugill was clearing the decks, cleaning the slate, conducting a fire sale, so that he could move on unencumbered, whether it’s by what he sees as ignorant Trump supporters, or the limitations of genre. Those who think Sturgill’s sole aim outside of the CMA Awards was to raise funds for the ACLU or get back at the CMAs are not paying rapt enough attention. Sturgill Simpson’s underlying message has always been delivered between the lines, not in overt, direct statements. Those are just the things he uses to set the table.
It’s difficult to say if Sturgill’s sideshow disrupted the unity inside the CMA Awards in any measurable way. Did murmurs of Sturgill’s doings outside seep in via social media, and spread through the CMA gallery and backstage? It’s certainly fun to imagine it did, and how people reacted as they were simultaneous attempting to ingest what was happening within the presentation as well.
Perhaps if Sturgill had been more outspoken about the CMA, his efforts may have come across as bitter, and more of a publicity grab than a moment of performance art, and possibly even disrespectful in light of Carrie Underwood’s stirring tribute to the Harvest 91 Festival victims and fallen country music greats, Miranda Lambert’s tearful performance, and Chris Stapleton’s big night, stimulated in no small part by the inspiration Stapleton received very specifically from Sturgill’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to make a record with producer Dave Cobb in a live setting, of which the results have been the launching of country music’s first organic mainstream superstar in arguably decades. No matter what side of the Bridgestone Arena gates Sturgill was standing on, his influence loomed large in that building, as it has every CMA Awards since 2015.
That’s why regardless of what type of record Sturgill Simpson releases next, or what his political views might be, his impact on country music is cemented. Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and others were criticized in their time for being caustic malcontents, not country enough, crying for attention with their combative behavior, and mocked for their political beliefs. But you remember them, and their legacies loom large, not just from their music, but from their words and actions.
Even the people who’ve now sworn off their Sturgill Simpson fandom and any affiliation with him moving forward can’t pass up any and every opportunity to bring up his name. They can’t stand him, but they can’t look away. They hate him now, but the same obsession from when they were a fan remains. Sturgill’s fans pay close attention. His detractors pay even closer attention. There’s barely been an article posted on Saving Country Music since Sturgill’s CMA upstaging that hasn’t veered towards the topic of Sturgill by his haters. And it’s not that their hate isn’t justified. But ironically, it only seems to make Sturgill’s star burn brighter.
Because it is Sturgill who is driving the narrative, even when he’s not there. Sturgill gained more by being uninvited to the CMAs than he would have being nominated for an award and appearing, because it’s the CMA’s that need Sturgill, not Sturgill who needs the CMAs. He may not be the country music messiah, but he certainly is the country music Huck Finn. He’s a folk hero, and a rebel, doing whatever everyone else wishes they could do, but don’t have the guts to. Was it an attention grab? Of course it was. Was it caustic and judgemental in spats, and even detrimental to his career in how the audience henceforth may be more limited, and any love between him and the CMA may be lost forever? You bet.
But it was also Sturgill being Sturgill. And through his actions at the 2017 CMA Awards, he enshrined himself into the annals of country music history more so than any CMA win ever could. Because Sturgill Simpson proved that moments are always more powerful than industry mementos in the mind of country music fans, and in the cold judgement of history. Good or bad, Sturgill Simpson got your attention. And in music, that’s ultimately what matters most.