Sturgill Simpson: A country voice of, and out of, this world


AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 15: Sturgill Simpson performs at the 2014 South By Southwest festival in Austin. (Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post)

Country music’s most exciting new outsider spends most nights inside, reading about the great beyond.

“I never go out,” Sturgill Simpson says, hunched over his breakfast, a glass of horchata. “It’s hard enough to sit at a table and talk to most people as it is. But we can go to some town and there’s 300 people we’ve never met before, and by the third song, we’re connecting with everyone in that room.”

So go the mysterious powers of great country music, which is why the 35-year-old is here at the South By Southwest music festival, singing cuts from his second solo album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” which is due out in May.

Simpson’s newest songs contain all the love, loneliness, good times and dread that define classic country, but they also go to greater lengths to suss out the meaning of life. Inspired by the writings of American psychonaut Terence McKenna and Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” Simpson sings about the bardo of Tibetan Buddhism in the baritone of Waylon Jennings.

“I’ve been reading about the idea of cyclical lives — it matches up to the idea of string theory and a multiverse,” he says in a deep, dead-serious voice. “So I wanted to write a record about that instead of another song about broken hearts and drinking.”

Sounds quirky, but this is a powerhouse album where the boldest lyrical ideas are steeped in old-school sounds — enough so that Simpson can still get away with describing it as “a very traditional country record.”

He soaked up those influences as an only child growing up in small-town Kentucky, where he and his grandfather religiously tuned in to “Hee Haw,” where he fell in love with Jennings’s “Dukes of Hazzard” theme song, and where he spent his adolescence mastering guitar licks by Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and an army of bluegrass heroes.

In his 20s, Simpson founded Sunday Valley, a band that specialized in a striking brand of electrified bluegrass, but couldn’t seem to keep itself together. Simpson left the group on numerous occasions — for a botched move to Nashville, for a couple stints of railroad work in Utah and for some darker chapters he’d rather not speak about.

During his first crack at Nashville, in the summer of 2005, Simpson spent his nights at the legendary Station Inn, hoping to shake the clouds over his head and learn how to become a better guitar player. But when the promise of a steady salary lured him to Utah, it wasn’t enough. Simpson’s wife insisted they move back to Music City in 2010 so he could take another shot.

“People say that it’s this parasitic, opportunistic, leech-based hierarchy,” Simpson says of Nashville. “But there are good, honest people there who will believe in you and will help you. You just have to find them.”

He found one in Dave Cobb, an esteemed producer who’s worked with some of Nashville’s greatest, most trend-averse talents, including Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. In turn, Cobb gave Simpson’s stellar 2013 solo debut, “High Top Mountain,” its winning balance of grit and sparkle. Another fortuitous connection: Simpson’s manager, Marc Dottore, who urged him to release his albums independently.

“You’re gonna go in debt no matter what,” Simpson says of releasing his own music. “So you might as well go in debt to yourself. Which is scary. But the credibility of being on this label or that label is kind of pointless.”

He says working outside of Nashville’s star-making machinery has allowed him to stake out his own space, and on “Metamodern Sounds,” he sounds like the rarest of country singers — one who’s free.

Truly free. During the album’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” he encounters Jesus Christ, Buddha, a hit of DMT, an angry God and “reptile aliens made of light.” By the time he reaches the album’s penultimate track, “It Ain’t All Light,” Simpson’s roadhouse holler sounds more like a howl into the void.

It’s a honky-tonk hallucination dotted with familiar signposts — small towns, long roads, empty beds and aching hearts — all held together by a feeling central to country music and life itself.

“The overall theme is probably love, to be cheesy about it,” Simpson says. “You spend all this time reading or thinking or praying or searching or exploring. Maybe there’s an Omega Point of love.”

(Unlike just about every other country singer living on the physical plane, his music cites Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theory that our universe is evolving toward a supreme, unified consciousness — an Omega Point.)

“And if not, screw it,” Simpson says, rattling a dozen milky ice cubes around in his glass. “Just be nice to people.”

chris.richards@washpost.com

Sturgill Simpson performs Wednesday at Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown and July 10 at the Birchmere in Alexandria. “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” is out May 13.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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