By Aaron Frank
As part of an influential group of artists seeking to revive the outlaw tradition in country music, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson is an uncompromising outsider, expanding the genre by integrating influences like Motown, blues, and psychedelic rock. His latest album is the defiantly progressive Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.
Like Ray Charles’s 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, from which the album borrows its title, Metamodern is an inciting departure from the commercial sheen of today’s mainstream country. Although he plays in a genre whose audience is often associated with right-wing politics, Simpson’s themes—his talk of psychedelic drugs, practicing love as a system of belief, and the connections between spirituality and science—are distinctly at odds with conservative ideology.
Thanks to the fresh ears and constant connectivity of a new generation, however, Metamodern has received attention in both Middle America and in major coastal cities such as New York, where Simpson had just played the Late Show With David Letterman when we spoke on the phone. That day, Simpson was returning to Kentucky, his birthplace, for what would be a sold-out performance in Bowling Green, a small college town whose most recent claim to notoriety was a sinkhole that swallowed a part of its largest attraction, the National Corvette Museum.
In an expansive conversation, we spoke about the broad reading habits that inspired his latest album and the psychedelic revelation that spurred on his sobriety.
For your latest album, you’ve received quite a bit of attention from the mainstream press, but I’m curious what the reaction has been from the country scene in Nashville.
Absolutely none. It’s been crickets. NPR, Rolling Stone, and all the rock & roll and other progressive music outlets have embraced it completely, and we’ve pretty much been all but ignored by the Nashville industry, which is great to me. That was kind of my whole goal going forward because I don’t really have much interest in being a part of that anyways. It’s almost like, the more everyone else embraces it, the more they ignore it.
Do you wish the country scene was more receptive to progressive artists?
Well, if that happens then great. The only thing that would make me uncomfortable would be finding myself sitting at the ACM awards or something, but that’s just not a headspace I occupy. I couldn’t even tell you what’s going on with that world. At this point, I really don’t even know why my wife and I live in Nashville since we don’t really leave the house.
Regardless of your views on the genre now, you grew up on traditional country music, much of which was considered mainstream at the time.
I listened to Keith Whitley and Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, people like that. Traditional music could still get on the radio up until the late Eighties. But when Keith died, that kind of opened the door for Garth Brooks to happen, and it’s been pretty much a shit show from that point on. I kind of tuned out, and I’ve listened to pretty much everything else but country for the last 25 years.
From a historical perspective, though, it does seem as if the most significant changes in country music have come from outsiders.
Sure. It’s the most obvious thing. All my favorite records, like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, when they came out, the label said this would never work. So, you know, go figure.
How does it make you feel that you’ve had so much success outside of the country scene?
The best compliment I ever get is people coming up to me after shows and saying they hate country music, but they love what we’re doing. Because, I think, if it’s going to survive and progress and maintain any type of relevance in the future, you have to reach people that don’t even know what country music really is.
Pop music’s always been there. There’s always been that facet of bubblegum, the mediocre and formulaic, whatever you want to call it. They didn’t invent that in the last 10 years, but now it’s just more highly focused. Anyone that wakes up and really enjoys listening to that stuff is probably not someone I’m going to relate to anyways, so pursuing a career based on filling rooms with people I’m not going to relate to isn’t something I’m interested in.
That’s something I just find confounding, that what they play on mainstream radio is still referred to as country music, but it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from what you do, which is actually more strongly rooted in country.
It’s just brainwashing. That’s all it is.
How do you sit down and write a country song with the intention of conveying your wide influences?
Well, writing the songs is always just me on the couch with an acoustic but, once you get in the studio, it’s all about serving the songs and using the tools you have available to maximize the sonic landscape that they live in. For the songs that were more grounded in Tibetan Buddhism and the human psychedelic experience, it gave us this wide-open palette to use techniques that maybe Pink Floyd would’ve used in the Sixties, but on a country song, which, to me, is a great challenge. It’s fascinating because I’ve never heard a country record that I love really do that. So, to me and my producer Dave Cobb, there was this whole world of possibility. Especially now, because country is so bland, there can just be so much exploration. Any good music is soul music.
From a lyrical standpoint, was there ever a point where you thought some of the spiritual and metaphysical themes might go over people’s heads?
The people that know what I’m talking about, they know what I’m talking about. The people that have to ask will probably never know. It’s a shame too because there are a few interviews where I’ve opened up about this, certain elements and ideas behind the songs, and now I’m considered weird just for my interest in metaphysics and the symbiotic relationship with science and spirituality. I’ve always been fascinated with guys like Carl Sagan and Terence McKenna, linguistics, and the evolution of man and why we evolved.
You briefly mentioned how this was the first group of songs you’d written while sober.
Yeah, it’s strange. I made my psychedelic drug record in the most sober point in my life.
Did you have any profound psychedelic experiences around the time that moved you toward sobriety?
To be completely honest, yes. I was at a festival in Portland, Oregon. I’d eaten some mushrooms after our set. We were hanging out in the woods in the backstage area, and there was a bottle of bourbon getting passed around. It came to me, and I took a hit, and it tasted like poison.
I had this deeply introspective hellish little moment to myself there on my couch, where I looked back at my life and the most negative times in my life and the worst decisions I ever made, and alcohol was always right there contributing to that. I had this conscious realization that I’m just a much better person without it.
I don’t judge anybody. I used to love drinking. Hell, I went pro at it. I had to retire. But now I enjoy the clarity, and it’s easier to tap into those feelings and emotions that you’ve experienced in retrospect. So, in terms of capturing the sonics of that, it was very exciting to recreate sounds that I’ve heard in my ears with headphones while I was on drugs.
Do you think it was sobriety that opened you up to some of those existential questions?
No. Honestly, I think the biggest influence in this album was finding out my wife was pregnant. We found out last August or September, and I went in the studio in early November, so I had already been reading a lot of Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu cosmology. It’s just a fascinating idea to me, finding out my wife was pregnant, and considering this really beautiful idea that there’s this soul that’s out there somewhere waiting to arrive. I’m not saying I believe that, or I don’t. It’s still a very beautiful idea, and it was inspiring, and I wanted to capture that. But you think about those things, and you’re like, ‘Okay. Well, yeah I’ve smoked DMT and watched the sky rip apart, and the next thing you know you’re on a rocket ship taking a field trip across the galaxy.’ And I’ve kind of experienced that, so you know, who’s to say it didn’t happen?
I always try to toe the line in interviews, because you don’t want to offend people in terms of certain beliefs, and a lot of the things I talk about question everything. But, for me, that’s what the record was really about. At some point you have to stop questioning and give yourself to the one truth that I’ve ever found salvation from, which is just love and being loved and accepting love and giving love. And life gets pretty simple when you do that.