“Lost in Space,” by Dennis Mader. Courtesy of Galerie Hertz and Geoff Carr Photography, Louisville, Kentucky
Ain't Half Bad
By Leesa Cross-Smith
People hear Kentucky and think of hillbillies, college basketball, caves, bourbon, horse racing, Appalachia, coal mining, our bloody, racist history. They also think of our musicians, our heroes, the greatest president, the greatest boxer. Kentucky is the gateway to the South and hard to pin down itself. It is a commonwealth that goes red, although its largest city, Louisville, goes blue. Louisville is a city rich in diversity, but it’s segregated. A city of ungodly amounts of old money, but poverty, too. Kentucky contains multitudes, our people contain multitudes. Our music should contain multitudes as well.
Take Sturgill Simpson. Sturgill (can I call you Sturgill?) is a Kentucky rascal, born in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. Jackson—population around twenty-one hundred. He comes from a family of coal miners. He was in the Navy. He worked on the railroad and played music and sang, and his wife reassured him he was good and should keep doing it. Sturgill Simpson’s first album, High Top Mountain, was self-funded, self-released in 2013, and the first track is “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean.” In 2017, Sturgill’s first major-label album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, won the Grammy for Best Country Album and was nominated for Album of the Year while being largely ignored by country radio and the country music awards. When the Grammy nominations were announced, Sturgill Simpson tweeted #whothefuckissturgillsimpson in solidarity with those on Twitter who had never heard of him. WHO THE FUCK IS STURGILL SIMPSON? t-shirts were available via his website.
In “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” Sturgill sings, “[You] won’t hear my song on the radio.” He’s right. You won’t. And he sings, “Well, the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done was give a good woman a ring,” so don’t go thinking he’s labeling himself as outlaw country either. Not getting played on the radio lets him know he’s doing something right. He wears gray New Balance sneakers and jeans and t-shirts and looks like a friendly guy you’d see at the gas station filling up his truck, buying pop and beef jerky. In the past, several of his YouTube videos were listed as “genre type unspecified.” His music is both restless and chill. He sings about looking for the end of the “long white line” more than once. Driving and driving, listing off names of cities he’s passing. New York City, Old St. Joe, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s been called a psychedelic space cowboy. He’s scrappy. He’s hard to pin down. He’s wiggly. He’s a Kentuckian.
I liked him from the jump but got super-attached to Sturgill when I was editing and trying to sell my novel. That anxious in-between. I listened to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on repeat, absorbing it. First listen felt a bit like solving a complicated word problem. I couldn’t process it. It feels from another time—the seventies. It’s tense and dramatic one moment, the next, languid and dreamy. It’s awash with blue, a country concept album—earnest letters to his wife and son, sea-moonlighting as songs. He sings common-sense dad lines like “Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “Don’t let them try to upsell you, there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too.” He makes “stay in school, stay off of the drugs and keep it between the lines” sound fetching and profound when backed by his army of snap-punchy brass. He offers up his grunge-country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and changes the “don’t know what it means and I say yeah” lyric to “don’t know what it means to love someone.” According to an interview with the New York Times, he misremembered the lyrics and inadvertently changed them, literally adding extra love to the song. The second track, “Breakers Roar,” defies its title and is instead a placid prayerlike lullaby. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a pristine, indefectible album that’s hard to categorize, although Sturgill’s voice is clearly country, clearly Kentucky—as Kentucky as Chris Stapleton’s voice, as country as Loretta Lynn’s.
Feast your eyes on what many consider to be a musical-taste unicorn: me, a black woman who knows and loves country music.
I am a homemaker from the horse-farm suburbs. I’ve never lived in the inner city. I was raised on hip-hop and old-skool r&b, oldies, pop music, and hair bands, too. I’m a Southern writer from Kentucky who doesn’t write about the South in a grotesque way, who doesn’t write primarily about race or write about race for the white gaze. I don’t always need to talk about it or describe my characters’ skin tones in words usually reserved for sweet foods and drinks. Coffee, caramel, toffee. I will not other myself, no. As often as I enjoy reading stories centered on race, I also want to read books about women who are black doing ordinary things like making dinner or having crushes or going to baseball games. Being kissed, getting drunk, praying, ruining their lives, finally finding peace. I struggled to find books like that as I was growing up. Now, I write them. If a Southern black woman sees herself in my writing and feels like she’s being represented? Extra cool. If any women or any people see themselves in my writing and feel like they’re being represented? Cool.
I love musicals, and the idea of black people being represented without being othered reminds me of a scene from Hairspray. The students are talking about it being Negro Day on the Corny Collins Show, and the white main character, Tracy, says, “Negro Day’s the best! I wish every day were Negro Day!” Seaweed, the black character, responds by saying, “In our house, it is.” This is true. I am black. Every day. The black characters I write simply are black, the same way I’m black. Sometimes I don’t mention it.
I’ve seen disappointed and confused faces when people ask me what I am and I tell them I’m from Kentucky. My extended family is from Alabama. They cock their heads, curious. But. Are you Indian? Puerto Rican? Mixed? My dad is a brown-eyed, dark-skinned black man, my mom a light-skinned black woman with bright green eyes. We’re black. My great-great-grandparents were enslaved. My great-grandparents and my grandmother were sharecroppers. We’re country. My husband is white, my children biracial. I have a biracial niece with blond hair and blue eyes. If what I’m doing or writing or wearing doesn’t fit into what someone assumes it should, who or what am I? Humans, like music, like writing, don’t always need categorization. But because life ain’t fair and the world is mean, people try anyway.
So Sturgill’s sound or look didn’t sound or look like the music being labeled country music at the time he wanted to put out his first album. Good. That was his plan. There was a lot of bad bro country, a lot of songs about sitting on tailgates, about girls in white tank tops and cut-off jeans. Ad nauseam. Sturgill’s 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is a play on the title of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and begins with a spacey metaphysical song called “Turtles All the Way Down” that refers to Jesus and Buddha in the first few lines. Can a country singer write a song about aliens? Absolutely. He also makes a list of drugs that includes marijuana, LSD, and DMT, then later sings “love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” Trippy and spacey, sugary and sentimental, country-honest and true. A little bit of everything. Yes, he’s an almost-forty-year-old white guy from Kentucky making country music and, still, he’s defiantly original.
When my novel was being shopped around, I, too, was defiant about remaining original. While knowing my writing could and would be labeled as “women’s fiction” since I am a woman and as “African-American fiction” because I am African American (seventy-two percent African, according to my Ancestry-DNA results), I was also okay with waiting for the right editor/publisher who would see my book for the book it was. Someone who wouldn’t feel the immediate need to shove it into a tight category to please themselves or the readers they thought weren’t smart enough to figure it out on their own.
I’m sure loads of interested record producers were scratching their heads trying to figure out how to put Sturgill in a rhinestone suit or a cowboy hat. Without those things, how would anyone know he was country? He should be wearing cowboy boots or writing more lyrics about dirt roads and pickup trucks. Wouldn’t listeners faint with confusion if he didn’t mention the brand name of a cheap beer in every song? Wouldn’t they have to hold their hands over their ears to stop the violent bleeding? Instead, he writes lyrics like “just another enlisted egg in the bowl for Uncle Sam’s beater” and “flying high beats dying for lies in a politician’s war.” In his video for “All Around You” there is an ominous, looming Trump-like figurehead with giant gold fists, a border wall with a heart-shaped hole in it. Conservative and country radio stations have previously punished country singers who aren’t Republican, who speak out against Republican presidents. What happened to the Dixie Chicks terrified a whole mess of country artists away from making political statements of any kind. Sturgill made the video anyway. And we see these images as his throaty Kentucky voice swells out to his son, to the listener, to the sky, “God is inside you, all around you and up above . . . a universal heart glowing, flowing, all around you.” Hippie talk. Lyrics that dwarf politics and our current president. Lyrics that resonate far more than which dirt road to take to the field party or which girl at the party has the tannest legs. That’s not what Sturgill is doing. That’s what the Nashville machine is doing. But rascals like Sturgill Simpson are succeeding anyway. He’s the guy who on his first album sings:
I sing ’em real pretty, I sing ’em real sad.
All the people in the crowd say “he ain’t half bad.”
Well, they call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain,
but if you want it you can have the crown.
He is saying: here I am, I’m good at this, this is me, this is what I’m doing. You like it? Cool. You don’t? Cool. He isn’t asking for anyone’s permission. He trusts his music will find the proper listeners. He isn’t delicate, he is patient.
Publishing requires a lot of patience, a lot of thick skin. At times, I wanted to give up. It gets old. It’s exhausting. I took to watching Sturgill sing my favorite song of his, “Water in a Well,” and his NPR Tiny Desk Concert, where he introduces the song by flirting, “We’ll do one for the ladies. I’m just bullshitting, they’re all for the ladies.” Watching the videos, listening to that song over and over again made me feel better. Look! Sturgill made it! His way! Without selling out to the machine! Maybe I can, too! I let those vibes wash over me, rested in them. Open-arms welcomed them.
My favorite version of “Water in a Well” is the live one from Sun King Brewery in Indianapolis. He’s long-haired and bearded in a blue jean jacket and begins by singing “looks can be deceiving” and, later, “someday if I’m standing on some big old stage and you’re down in the crowd, trying to tell your friends I used to know him, when in your heart you’ll know it ain’t true somehow.” A meta-acknowledgement that what he’s doing is working and he’ll continue getting more and more attention for it. This Sturgill Simpson song has a certain fussy acceptance. Fine. If it’s over, it’s over. Heartbreak is heartbreak, obsession is obsession. You have to sit with it. Frustration, exhaustion, rejection. I watched and listened, sat with my own. In that song he also sings “trying like hell but it’s too soon to tell if our love has all dried up like water in a well.” There’s a darkness there, but we can work with it. It’s a viscid gray fog with the real possibility of lifting if we wait it out.
Sturgill sings about sin and drugs and the sea, about fatherhood and loss, about enormous love and screwing up and forgiveness. He’s funny. See: his Waffle House song and skit with Stephen Colbert. Sturgill’s handsome and laid-back. He’s intelligent and intense. In interviews, he sweetly and consistently mentions his wife, who encouraged him to sing for a living (bless her heart). He wrote a song for her called “Oh Sarah” in which he sings “it’s the tender in your eyes that keeps me safe and warm at night from this life.” He is both gentle and tough. A family man. He’s country-boy confident and knows what he wants. In response to a tweet about Florida Georgia Line receiving five 2017 Academy of Country Music Award nominations and Sturgill receiving none even after he won the Grammy for Best Country Album, he tweeted out “Good . . . dodged a corny bullet. Plus it highlights their own hegemonic, transparent corruption/irrelevance. It’s all working perfectly . . . ”
Writing requires confidence. I believed in my books and stories before anyone else did. I had to do that on my own in order to work up the courage to show them to anyone. There’s a reaching out, a wide-open-come-and-get-it, that has to take place. Truly game-changing, genre-bending writers, performers, musicians, artists have to reach inside their chests and rip out their hearts, place them spilling and bloody and still beating on the table without worrying about timing or labels. The world is made better for it. No matter what is popular, most people can easily see through the phoniness. They can see behind the curtain and hear the whir of the machine. They crave breakthrough honesty and scrappiness, applaud it. Everyone loves a story of the guy selling CDs from the trunk of his car who later plays to sold-out arenas, the girl who made her way busking on street corners, playing coffee shops and bars who later headlines shows. The ignored indie author who later signs with a big publisher, whose book gets made into an award-winning movie. Sturgill, going from King Turd on Shit Mountain to Saturday Night Live, to the Grammy stage to get his award. We like to see ourselves there, too—the chorus of Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” drowning our ears in its fizzy loop, the work done in the dark finally paying off under the brightest lights.
I hanker for inspiration and find it wherever I can. I find it in music and words, in the sound of truck wheels popping through the gravel and the sudden breezy warmth as the last bit of winter clicks away. I find it in the infiniteness of God, in the mercy and uncomprehendingly boundless love of Jesus. I find it in Sturgill, too. A stubbornness, a hope. After lots of waiting and hoping, my novel found a home. Hub City Press, a Spartanburg, South Carolina–based nonprofit publisher, bought my (Kentucky-based, African-American working-class, romantic, women’s fiction, literary fiction) debut Whiskey & Ribbons. And I got here by writing the stories I wanted to write, by not worrying about where the publishers would put me or if my readers would find me. I trust them. They trust me. They’re smart, and they know what they’re looking for. I may not be easily labeled, but I’m here anyway and it ain’t half bad. Hey Sturgill, from one stubborn Kentucky rascal to another, thank you.
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