Sturgill Simpson made a name for himself in the music world at the ripe old age of 35, making him an anomaly to an industry that tends to favor younger artists almost exclusively (a cynical observer can only guess at why that is). When Simpson and his wife made the decision to follow a music career, he had already served in the Navy and worked what amounted to a fairly successful career at a rail yard. He knew that he could play guitar well enough to tell the stories he’d saved up over the years, so after trying out his promotion to an office job at the rail yard he quit his manager’s role and set off for the life of a troubadour.
Early on, industry promoters couldn’t resist their predictable schtick to compare his voice to Waylon Jennings or to try and sell him as something of a “new outlaw.” But to those who actually heard the record, they heard more than a commodity — they heard the man’s heart. While some may have been drawn to Simpson because of what was, to be sure, a kind of throwback country sound, he enlisted a passionate following who found him to be a fellow traveler. These folks, me included, didn’t care what style of music he played because they believed in him, his stories, and his musical visions.
Each of Simpson’s albums is sonically different from the others. Some sound like classic country, some more like modern Americana, some like alternative, some are soulful blues, some sound like protest songs, and some defy categorizing. That owed as much to his diverse musical influences that included Guns n’ Roses, Steppenwolf, gospel and bluegrass. This makes it hard to classify him exclusively as a country artist, much to the dismay of the record industry. Maybe that explains why you won’t hear him on the commercial country radio stations hardly if at all.
Likely because he was wise enough to know better, he refused to sign the big label record deals so that he could maintain his musical independence. This afforded him the chance to make the records he wanted to make, right up to his last two-volume project, “Cuttin’ Grass,” which featured bluegrass-styled versions of earlier songs in addition to some new ones.
Simpson says that this collection presents the songs as he imagined them when he first wrote them. He claims that some of the most influential childhood memories included bluegrass shows and events with his grandfather. He has claimed that the authenticity of that style of playing and especially singing made a huge impact on him. In an interview with legendary producer Rick Rubin, Simpson praises bluegrass as a kind of singing that can be felt on a level deeper than simply the meaning of the lyrics. He says that demonstrated the freedom of expression that is evident in the best music (for his musical thesis on this theme, check out “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” on “Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1”). This last collection came about after he survived infection COVID-19 in spring 2020, an experience that changed his perspective about everything from the virus itself to his wanting to be even more true to his musical independence than ever.
Regardless of how you hear Simpson, the fact remains that he tells stories that are real. They emerge from his experiences that include excesses, mistakes and the wonder of living in the world. He is unique and stubbornly independent, something that is hard to stay clear about in the modern musical landscape.
When he headlines opening night at the 33rd annual MerleFest on Sept. 16, he will bring an energy and joy at singing his songs that exemplifies the best Doc Watson’s intention that MerleFest highlight the best roots-based music from around the world. Sturgill Simpson has seen the world and he’s become an artist known for channeling the best that the Earth has to offer.
News Herald correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of the “Road Signs” radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at email@example.com.