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Esquire: Country Music's Savior Just Made an R&B Record

  • Esquire: Country Music's Savior Just Made an R&B Record
    April 1, 2016

    COUNTRY JESUS is a lousy nickname to saddle a guy with, even someone who so effortlessly possesses Waylon Jennings’s imposing baritone and Willie Nelson’s cosmic aura. Precious few are the traditionalists who manage to sound instantly relevant, and Sturgill Simpson runs in that rare pack.  But for a few years now, it’s seemed like the only one resistant to baptizing Sturgill Simpson Our Savior of Traditional Country Music has been Sturgill Simpson. He’s heard it so often he’s worked up a stock deflection: “I’m just trying to save myself.” Surely, some part of him must also be thinking: Why do I have to pay for Luke Bryan’s sins?

    But the more likely issue is broader: How do you move country forward when everyone’s depending on you for a look back? What makes Simpson’s new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, so thrilling is that it’s another deflection, ironically and clearly by design—it answers your questions about his role in the future of country music with more questions.

    Mostly because, uh, Sturgill Simpson has made an R&B record.

    The big reveal comes at the 2:44 mark of the set’s opening number, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” when the obligatory hallmarks of ’60s countrypolitan—swishy pedal steel and a lush but twangy orchestra—drop away on a dime. The horns kick in and shit gets funky fast. Not just here but also on the bulk of the album, Simpson is dealing out variations on what the ol’ timers remember as Gulf Coast Soul, the swampy R&B derivative that splits the difference between New Orleans groove and Houston blues. The production, his own, is meticulous and complex—gospel singers juggling call-andresponse lines, a swirling B-3 organ, and more horns. Lots of horns. They’re even there on a bizarre, highly stylized cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which otherwise might’ve sounded like early Dwight Yoakam. And then there’s the set’s closer, “Call to Arms,” a ballsy roadhouse rave-up that bops and weaves like a cross between the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff” and the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint.” It’s five minutes of sheer raucousness nobody could’ve seen coming. Or maybe we should’ve?

    The title of Simpson’s 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was a nod to Ray Charles’s groundbreaking 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. And there’s foreshadowing in the “meta” part, too—an implicit promise to be more abstract than modern country. But by pulling a reverse Ray Charles, has Simpson just swapped out one kind of nostalgia for another? Or is he making a throwback soul record as the ultimate rejection of both modern and traditional country? How’s that for meta? And maybe this is just a one-off, anyway?

    It’s hard to believe any other record this year will raise as many eyebrows, invite as many questions, or be as instantly beloved. But this might be the real revelation: Maybe this is just what country music sounds like to Sturgill Simpson right now. If that’s the case, God bless Country Jesus

michelle.bermudez's picture
on April 1, 2016 - 12:00am

COUNTRY JESUS is a lousy nickname to saddle a guy with, even someone who so effortlessly possesses Waylon Jennings’s imposing baritone and Willie Nelson’s cosmic aura. Precious few are the traditionalists who manage to sound instantly relevant, and Sturgill Simpson runs in that rare pack.  But for a few years now, it’s seemed like the only one resistant to baptizing Sturgill Simpson Our Savior of Traditional Country Music has been Sturgill Simpson. He’s heard it so often he’s worked up a stock deflection: “I’m just trying to save myself.” Surely, some part of him must also be thinking: Why do I have to pay for Luke Bryan’s sins?

But the more likely issue is broader: How do you move country forward when everyone’s depending on you for a look back? What makes Simpson’s new album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, so thrilling is that it’s another deflection, ironically and clearly by design—it answers your questions about his role in the future of country music with more questions.

Mostly because, uh, Sturgill Simpson has made an R&B record.

The big reveal comes at the 2:44 mark of the set’s opening number, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” when the obligatory hallmarks of ’60s countrypolitan—swishy pedal steel and a lush but twangy orchestra—drop away on a dime. The horns kick in and shit gets funky fast. Not just here but also on the bulk of the album, Simpson is dealing out variations on what the ol’ timers remember as Gulf Coast Soul, the swampy R&B derivative that splits the difference between New Orleans groove and Houston blues. The production, his own, is meticulous and complex—gospel singers juggling call-andresponse lines, a swirling B-3 organ, and more horns. Lots of horns. They’re even there on a bizarre, highly stylized cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” which otherwise might’ve sounded like early Dwight Yoakam. And then there’s the set’s closer, “Call to Arms,” a ballsy roadhouse rave-up that bops and weaves like a cross between the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff” and the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint.” It’s five minutes of sheer raucousness nobody could’ve seen coming. Or maybe we should’ve?

The title of Simpson’s 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was a nod to Ray Charles’s groundbreaking 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. And there’s foreshadowing in the “meta” part, too—an implicit promise to be more abstract than modern country. But by pulling a reverse Ray Charles, has Simpson just swapped out one kind of nostalgia for another? Or is he making a throwback soul record as the ultimate rejection of both modern and traditional country? How’s that for meta? And maybe this is just a one-off, anyway?

It’s hard to believe any other record this year will raise as many eyebrows, invite as many questions, or be as instantly beloved. But this might be the real revelation: Maybe this is just what country music sounds like to Sturgill Simpson right now. If that’s the case, God bless Country Jesus