Sturgill Simpson has a thing for turtles. And Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, and the Higgs boson particle. Not the first influences that come to mind for someone who released one of the best country records of the year in 2013, the grit-and-spit of High Top Mountain. But for his latest effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson delves into some pretty esoteric stuff, as with the opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down.”
“There’s a theory that the earth sits on a giant turtle and the turtle pulls it through space,” he says in his Kentucky drawl. Lest you think Simpson has been quaffing too much Appalachian hooch, that legend has been referenced in physics and philosophy, and he doesn’t drink. But he’s a deep thinker, a little cranky, and highly curious, with dry, honest wit.
For all its abstruse leanings, Metamodern is what country music should sound like: No sheen. No gloss. A little ass-kicking Southern rock on tracks like “Long White Line” and “Living the Dream,” atmospheric guitar squall on “It Ain’t All Flowers,” as well as the lonely lament of “The Promise.” He’s a country outlaw in the tradition of Waylon, Merle, and Johnny.
Simpson spent some of 2013 on tour with Jason Isbell, another gifted wordsmith. “Sturgill writes and sings songs exactly as a man named Sturgill should,” Isbell says. “He’s the genuine article, and his work reminds me of the country music I fell in love with as a kid: ornery, smart, and soulful.”
Those sounds came from Simpson’s formative years in Kentucky, where nearly everyone in his family played music, gathering every Saturday night in his grandfather’s living room. Sturgill rebelled as a teenager; he was busted for selling drugs in high school and ended up joining the navy after driving by an enlistment center, a spur-of-the-moment decision. “I walked in, looked around, and the navy recruiter was a really hot brunette, so I signed up with her,” Simpson says, chuckling. Figuring it was a way to explore the world, he did stints in Japan and Southeast Asia but ultimately decided he wasn’t cut out for the military. “I wasn’t very good at taking orders,” he says.
Afterward, he drifted back to Kentucky, taking odd jobs in Lexington and playing whatever gigs he could with the band Sunday Valley. Finally, with a push from his girlfriend (now wife), Sarah, they moved to Nashville. “She kept telling me that if I didn’t do it by the time I was forty, I’d never do it,” says Simpson, who is thirty-four. “And I feel like I’m finally on my own path.”
The path he’s chosen can be a thorny one. Simpson abhors the business side of country music, wincing at being tabbed the savior of country last year by a handful of media outlets. And when he says that Metamodern is a “country record that is going to piss off most country fans,” one gets the feeling that he doesn’t really care what people think of his deep thinking and bare-bones sound. But behind the prickliness lies a gifted songwriter whose talent is undeniable. “I want people to focus on listening, not the image,” he says. “And I want to play to everyone: rednecks, dubstep kids, punk rockers, and people who like as-real-as-it-gets country music.” He pauses. “And maybe they can think about the turtles too.”