The inebriated guy behind me at a recent Mercy Lounge show was of the opinion that Sturgill Simpson is the next Waylon Jennings. I know this because he carried on about it, loudly, in addition to yelling out his song requests. I also know that he's not alone in harboring that opinion. Other fans have made similar proclamations at other shows. Music bloggers have made the comparison, too. In the 11 months since Simpson released his first album, High Top Mountain, he's gotten an earful about "bringing Waylon back."
"It almost makes you feel like nobody really even listened," Simpson says. "Because I know it's easy to say, 'Oh, well, it sounds like this.' I was so amused by it, because interestingly, Waylon was probably the guy I listened to the least out of all those old country singers."
Given to introspection, Simpson didn't dismiss the frequency of this Waylon-associating offhand. "It just makes me kinda feel like maybe I haven't done a very good job of putting my own thing out there sometimes," he says. "I don't want to isolate anybody, but at the same time, I want to build a career where I can go out and play to people I relate to."
It's perfectly understandable that Jennings would come up sometimes, given that Simpson's manager, Marc Dottore, and his producer, Dave Cobb, have both worked with Jennings' progeny Shooter; that a track or three of Simpson's have loping, furtively funky Jennings-esque grooves; and that Simpson is admittedly on'ry — though not lonesome or mean. But to peg Simpson as an out-and-out imitator — even if the prototype in question is a giant among singers like Jennings, and especially now that Simpson's releasing his expansive sophomore record, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — is to miss out on an alert, artistic, original mind at work, and to perpetuate the blanket assumption that country should be heard as derivative stuff. Simpson's deceptively down-to-earth songwriting is as likely as not to toy with text, subtext and sub-subtext.
"For me," he says, "High Top Mountain was 50 percent unapologetic, heartfelt tribute to my family and 50 percent complete and total tongue-in-cheek, taking a piss on everything going on in modern country right now.
" 'You Can Have the Crown,' [aka] the 'King Turd' song, literally was a joke," he continues. "There was all this talking about laundry-list country songs at the time. ... So I was like, 'I'm gonna write the cheesiest, most cliché, token, laundry-list song I can think of that actually is applicable to my life. We recorded it later that day, and I heard the playback, and I remember thinking to myself, 'There's the song that I'm gonna wish I never wrote.' And sure as shit, now you go to the shows and that's all anybody wants to hear."
For a dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky-bred traditionalist, there's a surprising amount of elasticity to Simpson's music-making. On this new set, he hints at his bluegrass proclivities, conjures the specter of Conway Twitty (see the supple, "Lay Me Down"-like melody of "Voices"), doubles down on strapping '70s honky-tonk and explodes straight-ahead idioms in captivating ways. I'm talking about a genial traveling tune that explores the mysteries of human consciousness ("Turtles All the Way Down") and a soulfully brooding number ("It Ain't All Flowers") laced with inverted analog loops that sound like they've been sucked back into the tape machine and spit out in surrealistic ribbons.
Says Simpson, "I read this essay that a guy Seth Alverson wrote about metamodernism and trying to figure out where the world is after the postmodern age. It goes on about how society now is completely obsessed with nostalgia and everybody's running around in suspenders looking like they hopped off a hobo train. At the same time, technology is moving faster than ever. So you have this really harsh juxtaposition that we're all stuck in, trying to find identity. And from my world, you can look at these blogs or articles, and there's so much polarization and separation between people arguing senselessly over what is or what isn't country. And I just got so sick of it all.
"I decided, 'I wanna make a country record that kind of arm-wrestles itself with all that, and at the same time talk about something besides somebody cheatin' or gettin' drunk.' I'd been reading all this crazy, heady, esoteric bullshit, and my wife reached a point where she was just kinda like, 'You're gonna drive me insane, so maybe you need to get some of this out of your system. Why don't you write some songs about it?' I was like, 'That's actually a great idea.' "
What a charming opportunity for the people of Franklin to observe actual visiting Negroes.
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