Sturgill Simpson is trying to tell us something.
Every since exploding onto the scene in 2013, the Kentuckian has been somewhat of a disrupter in Nashville. His 2014 release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music earned comparisons to Waylon Jennings for it’s outlaw sound. In truth, it was an ambitious effort that deserved all the praise it received. But after a listen to A Sailors Guide to Earth, his avant-country masterpiece is clearly just an introduction to Simpson’s sweeping vision.
Framed as a letter to his son, Simpson doles out fatherly advice, ranging from folk wisdom in “Keep it Between the Lines” to personal anecdotes on “Sea Stories.” He continues his themes of cosmic interconnectedness (“A universal heart glowing, flowing, all around you”), but makes sure his son never thinks he’s “got to be a puppet to be a man.”
Sailor’s Guide reinforces Simpson’s reputation as one of country music’s strongest working songwriters. Tracks like “Breakers Roar” and “Brace for Impact” drip with emotion for his son, and “Oh Sarah” is the best love song of the year. Perhaps more interesting are the songs the songwriter chooses to cover. I’m sure plenty will be written about Simpson’s cover of “In Bloom,” and it deserves a listen as much as any song from the album. Just like his renditions of country standards “White Line” and “The Promise,” Simpson lays down a faithful cover of the classic Nirvana track while still making the it his own. What’s more impressive is how seamlessly the song fits onto the album. It’s as if it was written into the narrative of Sailors Guide and the message Simpson wants to leave his son. It’s a testament to Simpson’s artistic vision that he can integrate a Grunge standard into a country album in a way that’s simultaneously innovative and obvious; Simpson has drawn a straight line from Aaron Tippin to Kurt Cobain and placed himself right in the middle.
This is the crux of Simpson’s work so far. He is insistent that Country music must look to the past but live in the present to look forward. While he has abandoned some of the psychedelic sound that soaked Metamodern Sounds, Simpson brings modern atmospheric sounds to Sailors Guide and, of all things, Motown influence. He traded out Dave Cobb for the Dap-Kings, and it works. Where else are you going to find a funk band backing a country singer?
It’s only fitting that Sailors Guide ends in a raucous protest song. “Call to Arms” is just that, an indictment of drug wars, oil wars, and itself a declaration of war on mainstream media and culture. But the album is not a manifesto on Simpson’s vendetta against country music; it’s his love song to the genre. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a great handbook for a son, but an even better tribute to a musical tradition.
Simpson’s Spring tour will make a stop in Lexington for a two night residency at the Lexington Opera House May 16-17, however tickets are sold out. For full show info visit the venue’s website.
Written by contributing columnist Andrew St. Clair.