This article was originally posted on Vinyl Culture. This original article and others by Gabe Crawford can be found here. Follow Gabe Crawford on Twitter for all his music musings @gabecrawford and @Vinyl_Culture.
I have let Sturgill Simpson fall through the cracks these last few years. I’m not sure if I need to get out more, or if I get out too much. Do I have too much music or not enough?
When they announced the Grammy nominations for Album of The Year I was taken aback by his nomination, mostly for the pure fact that I did not know much about him. I have listened to Adele’s 25 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade and know each of these albums like the back of my hand. These records are some of the most innovative pieces of popular music we have today. So for Simpson to be ranked amongst these solid albums, I knew something had to be up. Little did I know he was the answer I had been looking for.
Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly aggravated and perturbed with modern country music. I am not a country music purist, but today’s country is anything but innovative or even remotely country in style. This new wave of “Bro Country” with the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line sickens me to my stomach. It’s not that I think these artists aren’t talented. I just believe they are leading country into oblivion and undermining its significance and meaning to our culture. Since having these revelations, I have naturally stopped buying many records that are deemed “Country.”
That could be a large reason why I overlooked Simpson, yet he is the exact opposite. I have always said that country is the “white man’s” soul. This isn’t a racist comment, I am simply speaking of the song stylings that have come out of each race. Both genres have themes that traverse the strands of race. Although, soul has taken leaps and bounds and continues to do so into new territory. Country has largely remained stagnant in recent years.
Simpson has taken country and pushed it forward with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The album flows like one continuous song while each composition retains its own identity. It’s a concept album, something we don’t see often in country music, and most importantly, its innovative.
One must understand the concept to understand the album. This is a letter to Simpson’s son that he wrote while on the road from the viewpoint of a sailor never knowing if he was going to come home.
This album opens with “Welcome to The Earth (Pollywog).” Simpson directly speaks to his son during a piano melody reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As the song progresses the classical piano stylings begin to intertwine themselves with a string section, and one of my favorite instruments, a steel guitar. The song then goes into a “breakdown” if you will. The song’s tempo speeds up while a soul and big band horn section begin to reconfigure this piece.
Wait, that was just track 1?
This style glides into the easy tones of “Breakers Roar”, before entering into “Keep It Between the Lines.” “Lines” takes on a new identity by turning country into retro-funk with the same kick ass horn section and steel guitar. This song is a father telling his son what mistakes not to make. “It don’t have to be like father like son,” Simpson sings.
Then we come to “Sea Stories.” These are the great stories our fathers and grandfathers tell us that we take for granted. This song has elements of modern rockabilly mixed into the mix of what I’ve already listed. In many ways, this song reminded me of my Grandpa and watching his old slides from when he was in Korea.
Oddly, Simpson then covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I was reading where he said this song made an impact on him during his younger teenage years and how he admired the message of how society’s preconceived notions of being a man aren’t always (if ever) correct. He takes this song and turns it on its head. Nirvana’s style is still distinct, but the song has a new outfit.
Side two opens with “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” This was the lead single off the album. It is the album’s most commercial song, but it is in no way conventional. Next, the album turns to “All Around You.” The message this song sends is a message that transcends time. It reminds me of a prom from the 1950’s. It has a doo-wap style mixed with honky-tonk piano. Beyond the music though there is a simple fact. Underneath the pains of this world, there is a “universal heart” that beats in all of us. It is “All Around You.” This ode reminds me of the injustices that are still struck upon races, religions, and other’s ways of life. It made me think of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.
The album closes with “Call to Arms.” This song is one of the most relevant songs I have heard when it comes to our generation. It is a snapshot of our world in 2017. It talks about wars, bombs, egos, the survival of identity, and the countless distractions we experience every day, but don’t notice. This song defines us and serves as a wake-up call. As a society of immensely different people, with a universal heart built inside each of us, we cannot let the “bullshit” the big guys are shoving down our throats stand. This is 2017’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”
Throughout all the musical stylings though there is one thing that remains constant and it is the driving factor of why this album remains country. Simpson’s vocals are a conglomerate of some of the greatest country musicians including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Dwight Yoakam. He is a less raspy Chris Stapleton and creates a distinct path through his vocal stylings. They’re real and heartfelt. They speak truth. They are country.
This album is quickly making its impact on my life and is becoming one of my favorites. It’s an album that has frozen a moment of my life I will be able to revisit every time I hear the shores roar. Sturgill Simpson is exactly what country music needs, but in larger respect, his innovative musical stylings is what a lot of modern-day music is lacking. Art must keep forming and changing. Art has a responsibility to reflect its time and often the time’s injustices. It’s our responsibility to teach the next generation where to go and what not to attempt.
Although this album is directed straight to Simpson’s son, its messages capture society. He shows through the album’s stylings that not only do humans have a universal heart, but music does as well. This is essential to remember for music defines generations.