Sturgill Sails Through a Stormy 2016

by Max Stewart

Wow… 2016 was a whirlwind, huh? This year will be remembered for monumental leadership changes in American politics, far too many tragic deaths of cultural icons, and a watershed moment variety of social and political issues.  Shouting matches between Grandma and Uncle Peter at the dinner table likely were the soundtrack to many folks’ holiday seasons, on topics ranging from the United Nations to the Kardashians. 

With so many polarizing issues out there in the world, it is comforting to know that music will always be there to calm us down and bring us back together.  The American poet / legendarily-named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it best: “Music is the universal language of all mankind.” When you felt you could not talk any sense into Aunt Sue as she spewed her thoughts on politics this Christmas, just know that you can always lay down the needle and spin some tunes and let the music do the talking for you both, ‘cos nothing unifies us quite as seamlessly as a hooky melody and inspired lyrics.  I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue when you’re dancing.

Sturgill Simpson is an artist who has done something remarkable in his relatively young career (he’s 38): he has inspired everyone from indie kids to punk fans, the Grammy’s Recording Academy to hardcore Nashville purists with virtually no radio play or mainstream support. You can be damned sure that Sturgill Simpson will remember this past year.

For Simpson, 2016 will be the year he was nominated alongside mainstream poster-children Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, Drake, and Adele for the Album of the Year with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Simpson sound-checking at the Rhyman in Nashville (Facebook)

 As an obsessive music fan, there is nothing quite as exciting as seeing an artist that you admire skyrocket in popularity in real time. For Sturgill Simpson, the past three years have been a wave of well-deserved recognition and success: a #1 Country Album, multiple Grammy nominations, a variety of TV appearances, music critic praise to boot, and most recently a jaw-dropping Saturday Night Live performance

After years of enjoying Simpson’s music with my friends and family (most of whom, I might add, are not Country fans), seeing him rise to prominence has felt like watching proudly as your son leaves high school and ultimately graduates from Med School with honors. Obviously, I have had nothing to do with his success, but dammit I am proud that the world is giving credit where credit is due. After the passing of country legend Merle Haggard, Simpson ripped the Academy of Country Music a new one for trying to capitalize on Haggard’s career only after he died while not “dedicating their programs to more actual country music”. So it’s good to see someone like Simpson garner accolades without having to rely on the support of the ACM and the corporate FM radio machine.

Back in August 2014, my girlfriend and I caught Simpson at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA to a sold out capacity of 500 after hearing what has become one of my favorite records of the past 25 years, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. At the risk of sounding cliché, I was completely floored by his performance. The Birchmere has housed Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and John Prine and is a classic music hall where even whispering is frowned upon. Getting to see him perform in a vacuum without mindless chatter or the clinking of Bud Light bottles muddying up the background was the ideal setting to first experience Simpson’s live show.

Sturgill & Merle circa 2015 (Facebook)

Simpson’s songs were so damn heartfelt and pure, nothing like I had ever seen before from a Country musician.  To be honest, I was not all that into Country when I saw him, but after the show I dug deep into the genre, I will always say that Simpson led me into the word of Country music “through the back door.”

After the performance, there was a meet and greet (I remember Simpson announcing he would “scribble on some stuff for y’all in the back”), and we got the chance to talk to Simpson and his band. “You’re such a breath of fresh air in music. You’re about to get big,” I proclaimed in an energetically, fanboyed-out state as I was still riding the excitement from the show. Simpson coyly smirked, “I just sold out the Birchmere, this is as big as I want to be.”  Truth is, I still believe him even after all of the success he has had since then.

Given that Country radio is cluttered with phony, Poison-cover-band-with-a-Southern-accent “Country” acts, fans have been thirsting for someone like Sturgill Simpson for a long time. People are drawn to Simpson because he is fundamentally Country, but manages to not come off like a novelty act trying to replicate the sound of the long-gone, heyday age of Country music.  Many critics have labeled him as “Alt-County” because it is difficult to cleanly fit him into the genre as he incorporates sounds of soul, folk, blues, rock, and much more.  Critics love to point to the psychedelic themes of Metamodern Sounds of Country Music (oh my word, he talked about DMT on a Country record instead of Budweiser!), but it’s also just his presentation and range of topics breached in his songwriting.  I mean, “Turtles All the Way Down” is a song that touches on the infinite regress theory.

Last I checked, Rascal Flatts ain’t releasing anything like that.

Simpson does have his fair share of classic Country heartbreak tunes and love songs that will choke you up (see “The Storm” off of High Top Mountain). After growing up in Kentucky, Simpson served in the U.S. Navy abroad and then worked for a railroad in Salt Lake City; this dude is about as real as real gets. Since the release of 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson’s ship has continued to sail onward and upward through the rigged waters of the Country music world.

After his Birchmere performance in 2014, the next time I got to catch Simpson was when he performed with his band to a sold out show of 1,200 at the 9:30 Club in February 2015.  It was equally as powerful as the last performance, but definitely heavier on the honky-tonk swing and twang than the intimate Birchmere show.  We even caught him for a short but sweet Farm Aid set in July 2016 at an event that included Neil Young, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Alabama Shakes, Dave Matthews and Jamey Johnson, amongst others.

Most recently, Sturgill sold out Constitution Hall (3,700 capacity) on October 11, 2016, just steps from the White House.  His ship’s crew has doubled in size since August 2014 in Virginia, with an addition of Bobby Emmett (Keyboards/Organ), Scott Frock (Trumpet), Brad Walker (Saxophone), and Jon Ramm (Trombone).

Simpson took the helm of the ship as we pushed off the dock into calm waters for High Top Mountain’s “Water In A Well,” a heartbreaking tune that could have easily been a George Jones number in the Seventies.  The brutal honesty of Simpson’s lyrics speaks volumes in a widely vapid time in music: “Lord knows I’ve tried to move on, and get you out of my mind. You find your way in to all of my songs. Every memory I manage to find.”  This was my introduction to the Estonian guitar virtuoso of the show, Laur Joamets, providing some of the most slick, twangy fills I have heard from a guitarist. The songs maintained course as a subtle, extended horn arrangement segued into the journeyman anthem, “Long White Line”.  No doubt road warriors, Simpson and his band have been riding out their success and bringing their live shows across the U.S. and internationally over the past few years with no intention of “looking for the end of that long white line” of the exhausting road.

The journey continued swiftly, again without pause, into the J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” which featured some Emmett’s funky synthesizer intertwined with Joamets’ boot-stomping lead fills.  This transitioned into a rattling cover of “When the Levee Breaks,” a moment in which the floodgates finally opened and the band was forced to take a brief moment to pause after the roaring song ended. Still, the waterfalls continued during “I’d Have to Be Crazy”, but that was mainly because this cover made famous by Willie Nelson is one hell of a tearjerker when Simpson and Company play it. 

At the Orpheum in Memphis (Facebook)

At this point in the evening, Simpson confessed that he was a bit under the weather while nervously acknowledging that the band was to play on Late Night with Seth Meyers the next evening: “I woke up with hay fever, it comes and goes but mostly goes… we will still have a good time.” An additional baritone saxophone player Nick Ellman joined on stage for “Life of Sin,” which had a brass-infused intro that really catapulted with a horn section that was rolling four deep. “A Little Light” was marked with New Orleans-style jam that had that Cajun-infused boogie thanks to Frock and Ramm. “Living the Dream” hit as hard as a cannonball to the chest with Joamets’ flooring slide guitar competency and Miller and Bartles’ perfect connection in the pocket, “Ain’t no point getting outta bed, if you ain’t living the dream.” Simpson and his band surely got outta bed that night in October, and then some. Simpson’s lyrics are relatable but profound, a perfect formula for any songwriter.  Moreover, he will stand up for his lyrics even when there may be some sort of petty backlash from the United States of the Easily Offended (i.e. his use of the word “Goddamn” when he sang the song on Conan).

“One more time for the band, I’m gonna lean on them extra hard tonight… Truth be told it is not much different than any other night. It is an honor to stand on stage with these assholes,” Simpson light-heartedly remarked as his crew had his back throughout every turn of the evening.  Besides maybe a little congestion in Simpson’s voice, I was extremely hard-pressed to find any difference in the quality of performance, with Simpson still nailing the wide-ranging vocal parts. “It Ain’t All Flowers” shines live thanks to the vibrato’d guitar licks and piercing lyrics that cut deep: “It ain’t all flowers, sometimes you gotta feel the thorns… And when you play with the Devil, you know you’re gonna get the horns.” There were many long-time Sturg-faithfuls in the crowd that knew their “Woohoooo” parts after the brooding chorus. “Against better judgment I’m gonna try this anyways…for the ladies…” quipped Simpson before jumping head first into his cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise.”  Man, what a relief. This beautiful adaptation of the Eighties hit is one that I can honestly say I am looking forward to hear at many weddings to come. Walker really stepped into the forefront with a sax solo that kept the soulful groove in check. 

 The ship carried on during the bluegrassified-twangtastic “Railroad of Sin,” a song that Simpson himself described as “Godzillabilly” (the song’s video was filmed in Japan where Simpson was stationed during his time in the Navy). Simpson’s acoustic soloing prowess proved he could very easily manage axe duties on his own, but when coupled with Jomaets we are looking at the best guitar duo in modern country music.  Joamets sat down for some pedal steel as Emmett’s organ intro led us into “Some Days,” a tune that exemplifies some of the frustration that Simpson (and countless others) have felt with the uninspired modern country music scene: “I’m tired of other people trying to take what’s mine and I’m tired of y’all playing dress up and trying to sing them old country songs.”  The acoustic picking by Simpson further highlighted that he can hold his own on the six string.  “Turtles All The Way Down” was everything you could have hoped for from the opener to Metamodern, with the majority of the crowd singing along to every word for a full goosebumps-inducing moment.  “Ricolaaaaa,” Simpson jokingly echoed in the theater as he reached for some cough drops after the song while managing to not skip a beat in the performance.     

The second half of the set was marked by the new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, played in its entirety. The decision to present an entire album in its running order certainly stands out in this singles-driven, ADD age.  “Hello, my son welcome to earth. You may not be my last, but you’ll always be my first,” Simpson sang on the album’s opener “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog).”  The — hopefully future Grammy award winner for Best– album was written as a message to his son and wife, and the live performance surely does not lose any of the heartfelt substance felt on the studio release.  The sincere touch was evident on the delicate “Breakers Roar,” which featured a unique brass arrangement while bassist Bartels kept the song steady. “Keep It Between The Lines” kicked off after a brass intro before a deep sea swing composed of pedal steel and organ solos that took the audience over like a tidal wave.  Captain Simpson drifted in the shadows towards the back of the stage to allow his trusty crew to soak in some of the limelight.  With all sails set, the ship was moving ahead in full swing thanks to Walker’s high-flying saxophone solo. “Stay in school, stay off the hard stuff, and keep it between the lines” is about a good a message to a child as you will ever hear from any so-called parenting expert.  The crew also performed this tune on SNL a few weeks back, do yourself a favor and check it out.  In one of the catchiest country songs of 2016, “Sea Stories,” Simpson recalls time in the Navy while being stationed in the Land of the Rising Sun.  I still get quite a kick out of hearing Simpson’s soulful drawl list out Asian landmarks he came across during his time serving our country in the Far East: “From Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket, from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, seen damn near the whole damn world, from the inside of a bar.” The end of this number was one of the most rousing moments of the night, thanks to a very D.C. last line, “But flying high beats dying for lies, in a politician’s war.” 

Where else in the world are you going to hear a country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”? 

Again, Simpson is a unifying musical force hell-bent on breaking down barriers. He is a country music warrior who has proved that an artist can manage to have a unpolluted country sound while exploring sonic spheres beyond the genre. 

His interpretation of the lyrics (“But he don’t know what it means to love someone”) was exactly how he thought Cobain belted it in the Nineties, a human interpretation of his perspective on a song that continues to define many Americans’ teenage years. 

“Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” saw Simpson and Joamets providing dueling guitar duties before Simpson laid down a reverb-heavy solo. This number recognizes that our ships won’t sail forever, and that we must do good with our time on the high seas: “Make sure you give a little, before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” Sturg strapped on the acoustic again for “All Around You,” a poignant, glass-half-full message to his son that encourages keeping your head up when the going gets tough.  “Oh Sarah” is a beautiful, earnest message to his wife, a woman that clearly is Simpson’s anchor as he weathers the storms of this treacherous world: “It’s the love that I feel in your arms, it’s the glow you wear around you like a charm.  It’s the tender in your eyes, that keeps me safe and warm at night…from this life.”  The set ended with a rip-roaring, Telecaster-twanging, brass-swinging full flying final leg that was everything you could possibly want from a closer.  The upbeat song feels very fun thanks to the swinging brass arrangements, but the message of “Call To Arms” is very serious look into the current state of political affairs: “Nobody is lookin’ up to care about a drone, all too busy lookin’ down at our phones.”

Constitution Hall was rocking as Miller kept the beat so steady you coulda landed it in a hurricane. The entire band was fully locked in on this one, with Simpson emphatically running around the stage while leaving the District crowd with a straightforward message: “D.C. telling me how to be, bullshits got to go”. Frock, Walker and Ramm managed to keep the raucous brass section in line amongst all of the fun for one of the highlights of the night.  Simpson ended the show on his knees, beating the hell out his Telecaster while waving goodbye to the awestruck crowd.  Phew, what a way to end another memorable performance (again, have a taste of this performance by watching this some on SNL). I can say genuinely that each Simpson show that I have seen has been an improvement upon the last; Simpson has found ways to evolve and grow his sound without dissecting it so that it loses its humanity. 

Despite the fact that Simpson said that he was as big as he wanted to be back at the Birchmere in 2014, what Simpson has done over the past few years is about as inspirational as it gets for any music fan / musician.  Simpson managed to be nominated for Album of the Year with no mainstream radio play, and has had major success in a rigged genre format such as Country music.  Simpson has set a major precedent and will inspire countless others to pursue their dreams even when the odds appear to be stacked up against them.  Godspeed to Sturgill Simpson and his crew in 2017, I hope more and more people get to hear his music and that he continues to bring his live shows to the world.  Also, good luck to more of the authentic artists that choose to sail the seas in 2017 with the relentless determination that has gotten Simpson to where he is today. Captain Simpson, we salute you!  

Washington D.C. – DAS Constitution Hall – 10/11/16

Set 1

  1. Water in a Well >
  2. Long White Line >
  3. Call Me the Breeze (J.J. Cale cover) >
  4. When the Levee Breaks (Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy cover)
  5. I’d Have to Be Crazy (Willie Nelson cover)
  6. Life of Sin
  7. A Little Light
  8. Living the Dream
  9. It Ain’t All Flowers
  10. The Promise (When In Rome cover)
  11. Railroad of Sin
  12. Some Days > Turtles All The Way Down

Set 2

  1. Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
  2. Breakers Roar
  3. Keep It Between the Lines
  4. Sea Stories
  5. In Bloom
  6. Brace for Impact (Live a Little)
  7. All Around You
  8. Oh Sarah
  9. Call to Arms

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