The Metamodern Gospel of Sturgill Simpson

Does Sturgill Simpson ever consider giving up? “Every fucking day,” he said over the phone, speaking to the internal doubt that haunts his professional direction, emphasizing how the well being of his soon-to-be expanding family rests on his success as a musician. It’s a conflict that breathes through Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and one that he’s already succumb to, when he first walked away from his craft, opting instead for the security of a position with Union Pacific in Utah. “I’ll do this as long as I can,” he continued. “But if there comes a point where I feel like my family is suffering, or I’m putting my own needs in front of that, I’m done. I gotta walk away, and I’ll know that I tried and I can feel good about it.”

With a theme of discovery at its core, the record relates Simpson’s attempts at balancing family, purpose, and self. At its boldest it’s a battle cry to dismantle and shed the veneer of ego. At the very least it shows a man learning to get out of his own way. On first glance just a wink to Ray Charles’ 1962 masterpiece, the album’s title does well to frame this struggle within the context of creative outlet. In their 2010 “Notes on metamodernism” essay, Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker defined the abstract term as “[a sensibility] that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.” Here exists a man in the middle of cosmic opposites, their conflicting polarities causing an existential crisis, only further inflated by a self-made dilemma of duty. This is space in which Metamodern Sounds exists.

An invisible force has been tugging at Simpson since forever. Moved to honor the sacrifices made for him by his family, he joined the Navy at age 19, leaving behind his Eastern Kentucky home for Tokyo’s neon glow. He chose not to follow in the footsteps of his father (an undercover narcotics officer) when returning to America however. Instead, a creative drive took over and he formed Sunday Valley in 2004, releasing an EP with the twang-infused rock group before aspiration once again clashed with circumstance, leaving him bound for Salt Lake City.

The railroad job wasn’t bad, but the long hours, weighed further by the added stress of a managerial promotion, pushed Simpson near collapse. A few years into the work and he’d had enough. As the story goes, his wife dusted him off and injected a little sense into him, directing him back toward music so as to keep him from driving them both crazy. Still riding the swinging pendulum between security and satisfaction, the couple sold much of what they owned, packed their car, and headed east, where a retooled Sunday Valley would be reborn.

The band released To the Wind and on to Heaven in 2011, received critically as a “totally bullshitless record” that’s “as good-hearted as it is raucous.” The new songs and renewed sense of direction led the band to Nashville, where it didn’t take long to find a little shine. By October, Sunday Valley was named “Best New Outlaw Band” by the Nashville Scene, with writer Edd Hurt praising the group’s “super-boogie style suggestive of The MC5 with a Bluegrass State-size case of the blues.” Time and change remaining constant however, the new year found another swing in direction. “Out of respect and honor for Billy, Gerald, & Eddie and the sacrifices we all have made for this thing over the years,” wrote Simpson in an early 2012 Facebook post, “I could never under any circumstances feel good about continuing my musical journey under the Sunday Valley name.” Previously billed as John Sturgill Simpson, the singer shortened his name and welcomed the future. “New band, new sound, new album coming very soon,” he continued. “[A]s they say, the next chapter is always better, that’s why we turn the page.”

It wasn’t long before the newly christened Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys was trimmed to just the frontman’s name; the group would instead use the secondary tag — a nod to “the final resting place of many past generations of [Simpson’s] family” — as the title of their next album. “When I did the High Top Mountain record I didn’t know if I’d actually be able to make another record after that,” continued Simpson over the phone. “So I wanted to make a very traditional hard-country album that not only I could feel good about, but my family could hear and be proud of.” Oscillating between the past and the future, last June’s release carried a purposeful “neo-traditional country sound,” with producer Dave Cobb recruiting steel guitarist Robby Turner and Country Music Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins to help shape its form. The music again illustrated a swelling dualism within the songwriter though, Simpson’s lyrics and sound exposing a man attempting to understand who he’s yet to become by living in the past. The album might best be viewed as a relic of transition.

“I always felt like I left a piece of my soul there,” Simpson told Kentucky.com last year, reflecting on his time in Japan after returning there to shoot the music video for “Railroad of Sin.” Much of the album, and the High Top period, feels in retrospect like Simpson going back over a trail of breadcrumbs, reclaiming bits of his soul that had been scattered over time. Album opener (and Sunday Valley holdout) “Life Aint Fair and the World is Mean,” for example, revisits the “turn the page” comment in a lampoon of the music industry. “It’s about life, how I came to Nashville with a very naïve perspective and some very quick, hard lessons learned,” he continued. “Without being too specific, it’s my own personal reminder of what I don’t want to do.” As the writing progressed for his next album, Simpson began to develop a keener sense for who he no longer was as a songwriter. “Honestly,” he commented this past March, speaking to WFPK, “I just kinda woke up and felt like I couldn’t write any more songs about broken hearts and drinking.”

“[High Top Mountain] gave me the realization that I had the freedom to write about whatever-the-fuck I wanted to,” he continued in our conversation, speaking to the thematic evolution of Metamodern Sounds. “There’s all these other things I’m interested in, and personal experiences that I’ve never really incorporated into music.” This isn’t to say that he completely abandoned High Top‘s themes with the release, however: “Life of Sin,” for example, goes deep in illuminating past transgressions (“Every morning when I rise I look in the mirror and despise / The sight of everything and all that I’ve become / The level of my medicating some might find intimidating / But that’s alright ’cause it don’t bother me none”). But unlike his last album, the subject matter here appears a springboard for higher-minded thinking, and flirtations with such themes translate as an exorcism of the past: purposeful molting to welcome evolution. With Metamodern Sounds Simpson isn’t moving beyond “broken hearts and drinking” simply for the sake of doing so, or to spit on country music tropes or position his music against contemporaries, but only because that’s just not where he is anymore.

While citing classics from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as inspiration, musically, the bulk of Metamodern Sounds lives in a similar space as its predecessor — though it sounds at times even more traditional than High Top, and its detours are unquestionably more ambitious. “I fully anticipated on being the acid-country guy,” he said, presumably speaking to the twisting psychedelia of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Once again produced by Dave Cobb, the album was recorded live-to-tape in just four days. Simpson continued, “I feel like I’ve sort of cleared my throat and gotten my sound down.” The result is a record as appealing to Williamsburg as it is Lake Wobegon, modern sounding and full of risks while familiar and sentimental at the same time. Much of the credit for the album’s range and consistency belongs to the band, comprised of Simpson’s longtime bassist Kevin Black, drummer Miles Miller, and Estonian guitarist Laur “Little Joe” Joamets. “I wanted to make a record for people that don’t know that it’s possible to like country,” added Simpson. “It’s all really just soul music at the end of the day.”

The album’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” is further evidence of metamorphosis, finding the singer attempting to confront and abandon his past self by using psychedelics as exploratory vehicles, employed to break down “the self-defense mechanisms that we all don’t even realize we create for ourselves.” (“I don’t do drugs anymore,” he mentioned later in our conversation. “I would love to know what the album sounds like on drugs, but I probably never will.”) This led him to “look for other things that could change the direction of [his] life” – a sort of literary rabbit hole that he followed, digesting Rick Strassman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the process. “Everybody’s going to get hung up on all the other shit that went into it,” he continued. “But all it was was really like this 15 year psychobabble existentialistic dilemma that led me to writing a record about love that sounds like I’m trippin’ my balls off. But you don’t really need drugs to get there, you know?”

In a Facebook post last week thanking fans, Simpson took a moment to exhale: “It goes without saying that I am about as sick of hearing/talking about me as I have ever been in my entire life.” People wanting a piece of you is a consequence of having something to offer though. Perhaps demonstrative of this (or just evidence of a great publicist), Simpson is currently in high demand: Metamodern Sounds premiered on NPR, Simpson recently performed on BBC2’s Later… with Jools Holland, and he has a Late Show With David Letterman appearance on the books for July. Despite aiming beyond mainstream country, there’s something to be said for the commercial appeal of a thoughtful masculine figure, preaching love and referencing literary influences over a sonically traditional bed of distinctly American music. (As Bill Hicks once mocked, there’s big money in “that anti-marketing dollar,” which might be funny here if authenticity hadn’t become so profitable.) At the very least Metamodern Sounds should resonate with recent country music converts introduced to the genre through Kacey Musgraves’ casual rebellion, now looking beyond her gateway songs in search of a more profound high. Regardless, a successful career appears imminent. Simpson’s motivations, however, remains fuzzy.

As “Notes on metamodernism” concludes, “the ‘destiny’ of the metamodern wo/man [is] to pursue a horizon that is forever receding.” It’s hardly a stretch to re-frame Simpson’s career to this point through such a lens. While few of us know what we’re truly searching for beyond “happiness” or “love,” we’re all looking for the same thing. We all grapple with direction, meaning, and purpose, and so does Simpson, which is why he’s the first person to clarify that he doesn’t pretend to have any answers. That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to provoke something within us as he discovers more about himself though. As his recent Station Inn set wound down, the singer looked at the floor for a moment and spoke halfway under his breath before playing the show out, “Thank you very much. Don’t give up hope.” Few words carry such weight, but what do they actually mean? Hope for what? Hope that our decisions to breathe as artists don’t prevent us from feeding and housing our families? Hope that we’re able to find a way to make it through another day without hitting the self-destruct button of chemical escapism? Maybe just hope that tomorrow is going to be alright. If Metamodern Sounds says anything, it’s that no matter what exists beyond the horizon, we should never stop trying to reach it.

Related PhotosSturgill Simpson at The Station Inn

A Whole New You

William Tyler‘s Lost Colony isn’t quite a rebirth, but for being only three tracks deep there’s a surprisingly bold message that breathes through the release. “Tailor made for epic, exploratory road trips,” the EP is led by a pair of the guitarist’s catalog songs — now revisited with the support of a band — and closed by a “Kraut country” rendition of Michael Rother’s “Karussell.” Musically, the rounded-out lineup of players on the album follows Tyler’s 2012 Nashville’s Dead single, which stepped away from the solo-focused Behold the Spirit to deliver a full-bellied rock sound. However, now aided by drummer Jamin Orrall (JEFF the Brotherhood), pedal steel guitarist Luke Schneider (Natural Child, Lylas), and bassist Reece Lazarus, the newly revamped songs don’t try to rewrite the past so much as they build upon it.

Its title stemming from an inside joke about consciousness, album opener “Whole New Dude” is a renewal of “Man of Oran,” a sprawling Paper Hats piece from 2009’s Deseret Canyon. Not unlike with the EP’s second cut, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” which was originally issued on last year’s Impossible Truth, the expanded lineup helps fill out the song without abandoning the intricacies of the original. The fan in me wants to strike back at Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson, who criticizes the latter track in his review, writing “the [new] arrangement transforms the character of the song entirely, but it also doesn’t add anything to it.” Though, sharp as the position might seem, it’s not entirely off the mark. It just misses the point of the exercise, which might be to appreciate the subtle changes in approach when rebuilding something familiar from the ground up with a different set of tools. This music is about craft.

Replicating yesterday’s work delivers consistency, though it doesn’t necessarily lead to personal growth. As Tyler told me in an interview a few years ago, “I think anytime I find myself settling into a pattern of consistency I start panicking. So while, yes, there is a certain framework of tools and methods that you need in order to be able to do linear things like touring or even recording an album, the musicians/writers/humans I most admire are the ones who refuse predictability.” In this sense, the two reworked tracks seem to represent a challenge to his own predictability (a theme amplified by “Karussell,” which Tyler said was released to “explicitly do something that made everyone realize I was a fan of that kind of music“). But when playing The Stone Fox recently he closed the set with a performance of the Clean’s “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” uncharacteristically stepping up to his microphone and adding vocals to the song while strumming along with a pick. It feels like something different is going on here.

Lost Colony might not be anything more than a temporary creative pivot, or it could lead to a whole new direction from the much beloved guitarist. Either way, it’s hard to draw any conclusions from 27 minutes of music. Regardless of intention, the songs do seem to represent something altogether different though. In revisiting the comforts of yesterday’s creations with an ever-maturing perspective, Lost Colony stands as a rather distinct plot point on Tyler’s evolutionary timeline. The EP demonstrates an ability to confront complacency with a refreshed sense of curiosity. Cliché notwithstanding, spring lends itself as a perfect time for this sort of personal change. And here we are, deep into the season, with a collection of songs that signifies how personal reinvention can begin with each new day.

Into the Wild

“I’ve been back and forth between Cleveland and Nashville a lot in the past five years,” writes Christopher Wild, emailing en route to Nashville from L.A., returning from a trip to the Mojave Desert. “Both cities feel a bit like home,” he continues, “but also a bit less than a place that I feel like I can say I live.” Wild’s eponymous debut reflects this sort of renegade spirit as filtered through classic rock influences, with the resulting 11 tracks falling well in line with a sound that migrated to Nashville through the likes of Jack White and the Black Keys. But Christopher Wild is hardly a blues-rock replica — it’s an amplified statement, making good on the prodigious claims that the guitarist’s been leveled with ever since he was a teenager.

A lot of the songs that are on the record are ones that I’d written in high school and college days, adds Wild (born Christopher Volante), dating some of the tracks back around the time of one of his first musical achievements, through his band the Sharp Edges in 2009. That year, in front of a panel of judges led by then-Vice President of Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jim Henke, the group won Live Nations Tri-C Rock-Off, a high school battle-of-the-bands style event held at Cleveland’s House of Blues. Chris Volante showed his virtuosity by ripping a slasher guitar and a melodic keyboard to complement his pure metal tenor, wrote Cleveland.com’s Chuck Yarborough of the performance. “At such a young age they had more talent than a lot of people in the industry,” reflects Wild, looking back on his time in the trio. “And they were really fun guys to play shows with.”

In 2012 he was hand-picked for Belmont’s annual Best of the Best showcase, yet despite these sort of recurring music industry affirmations, Wild approached his self-released debut as a very personal matter, recording all the instruments and vocals himself. Relying on analog all the way, he began tracking the album at his parents’ house in Cleveland last August, while he finished the vocals at RCA Studio B the following month in Nashville. At this stage fellow Cleveland-to-Nashville transplant, Tommy Wiggins, stepped in, simultaneously mixing and mastering the recording live to tape. “When Chris played me the first roughs for what would become this album,” Wiggins recently posted to Facebook, “I got the exact same feeling that I did when I was 19 and heard Led Zep’s first record for the first time. Electricity and hair standing up on my arms.”

If looking to pinpoint influences, Led Zeppelin is heavily in the mix among the set of yesteryear rock homages. You might also hear The Stripes in Wild’s Lennon epitaph “The Day,” Jeff Beck through the propulsive blues of “Strawberry Lips,” or Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, and Big Star elsewhere in the LP’s other nine cuts. But in “Home,” Wild’s record collection, personal style, and perceived place in this world all seem to collide. “I don’t know where I’m going,” wails the singer, “All I know is I don’t have a home.” Christopher Wild’s debut is ripe with familiarity, and it validates the acclaim he’s received since his youth, but more importantly the music’s helping him find his place in this world: It doesn’t really matter where Chris Volante lives because, as Christopher Wild suggests, through his music he will always have a home.

D’ark Was The Night

The roots of D’ark wind through Nashville, back to Portland, and all the way to Maui, where six years ago the band Copperfox was conceived between partners Lisa Garcia and Rory Mohon. Their 2011 debut, From The Den, ended up running four tracks deep, revolving around a sound that Garcia calls “moody alt-country.” While those first songs transition fairly seamlessly into their sophomore release, the change and growth between the records was immense: Garcia and Mohon uprooted themselves “from the wonderful city that is Portland in search of a bigger music town,” eventually landing in Nashville, and expanding their lineup to include Andrew Bottini and Stephanie Kincheloe. What emerged from this period was last year’s Roads Traveled EP.

Copperfox played their first Nashville gig at Twin Kegs last summer, leading to a meeting with producer Caleb Laven, who was impressed by the set. Reflecting on the encounter over email, Laven says “[the band] really stuck out to me as a sound that could have an impact not only around the Nashville scene, but on a much larger scale.” “He told us we sounded like a David Lynch film,” adds Mohon via email. “I knew we were going to be friends after that.”

The framework of the first two D’ark tracks were recorded on Mohon’s iPad before Garcia added vocals and the songs were sent along to Laven for mixing. “Fangs and Paws” is slowly propelled by Garcia’s smokey howls while “Fast as Lightning” fades guitar echoes over vintage-sounding electronics. Both tracks bear a predictably dark sound, each following a traditional structure that Mohon describes as a reaction to synth-wave music he was listening to. “The people writing this type of music weren’t pushing it far enough,” he says. “A song would typically consist of a beat that rarely changed and a fixed chord structure and it would drone on for five and a half minutes. I liked it but would get bored and wanted there to be choruses and a bridge, like pop music would have.”

No matter the impetus of the music, both agree that Garcia’s vocals lend the songs their identity. “Theres this sort of beautifully haunting thing about the melodies she writes that really gets to me at times,” says Laven. “I also have Lisa to thank,” adds Mohon. “It was her voice that brought these songs to the next level and made me determined to do something greater with this project than to just pass it around amongst my friends.”