Remember Bonnie Bear? Remember when so many people wondered who Beck was? The Grammys have a way of snatching established musicians from their respective realms of relevance and tossing them into the national spotlight, where they’re left to prove themselves anew. Joining Bon Iver and Beck in the Grammys’ recent ranks of major left-field picks this year is Sturgill Simpson, a Kentucky-born singer-songwriter whose kaleidoscopic country tour du force A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is unexpectedly up for Album of the Year.
Simpson is a part of the country world, but he’s not exactly part of its establishment. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth — which dropped April 15 on Atlantic — draws from obvious non-country sources far more than what’s heard on country radio or lauded in the genre’s award shows. He’s a singer-songwriter at heart, and that appeal gives Simpson a legitimate shot at scoring top honors at this year’s awards. Views, Purpose, Lemonade and 25 dominated the discussion and the marketplace, but that means they’ll also be vying for the attention of many like-minded Grammy voters.
For guitar-based songwriting traditionalists — or those simply thinking outside the zeitgeist — Simpson is the only way to vote, giving him a defined, legitimate path to victory. So don’t wait until Feb. 12 (that’s Grammys night) to get educated; here’s our introduction to Sturgill Simpson.
Simpson, 38, was born in the small town of Jackson, in southeast Kentucky. His father was a policeman and his mother was a secretary; before them, his ancestors existed in the poverty of Kentucky’s Great Depression-era coal mines. Sturgill actually spoken about how excited his still-living maternal grandfather was to watch his grandson perform at the Grand Ole Opry (hearing the Opry’s radio transmissions was one of their few pleasures during the ‘30s).
Coming from a decidedly outside-the-music-industry, working class background, Simpson took a roundabout way to musical notoriety. He enlisted in the Navy, traveled to Japan, lived in the American Northwest, moved back to Kentucky, and then moved back to the Northwest, in Portland, Ore., where he fronted the band Sunday Valley in the early 2000s.
Sturgill’s Recent Work
When Sturgill went solo, it all started to come together. In 2012, he began work on High Top Mountain, his completely self-funded, self-released debut, which came out the following year. It still draws frequent comparisons to Waylon Jennings and outlaw country, so it’s much more of a genre exercise than what he’d eventually accomplish.
He stuck with the same producer, Dave Cobb, for 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his real breakthrough. This was where he really started to mess with the tradition of country music, riffing on spirituality through drugs and different deities (not just Jesus!) over increasingly spaced-out strums and steel guitar. It won him national press from outlets like The New York Times, appearances on the major late-night talk shows, and lo and behold, a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
Afterwards, Cobb wound up producing Chris Stapleton’s own breakthrough Storyteller (nominated for the Album of the Year last year), and Simpson self-produced A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his first major label album. It’s framed as a welcome-to-this-world letter to his newborn son, calling on country, punk and soul traditions (with brass from Sharon Jones‘ retro soul backing band, the Dap-Kings) to navigate Simpson’s song cycle.
Watch the music video for the Sailor’s Guide cut “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” below:
Simpson might not be part of the country “establishment,” but that’s not to say he’s unpopular in Nashville. Ask folks around town about their favorite songwriters, and you’re likely to hear Simpson’s name come up. Within the country industry — and now, evidently, the music industry at large — there’s a definite admiration for Simpson’s craft, and while it’s obvious an album like A Sailor’s Guide to Earth would sound terribly out of place on country radio, it’s equally clear why it’d appeal to music listeners who actually vote for Grammys.
Who does vote for Grammys? Voting members of the Recording Academy, individuals who’ve amassed at least six credits in liner notes, composers, producers, engineers, session players — exactly the type who’d gravitate towards a “songwriter’s songwriter.”
If you’re looking for further evidence of the adaptability of Simpson’s craft — not just in his songwriting — check out this pair of covers, one from each of his last two albums. On Metamodern Sounds, he re-interpreted When In Rome’s late-’80s synth-pop hit “The Promise,” and on Sailor’s Guide, he zapped Nirvana’s grunge classic “In Bloom” into lullaby-like form that’s almost unrecognizable, save for its familiar lyrics.
Sturgill’s Ability to Break Up a Fight
For more information, and to really get in touch with what Sturgill’s all about, listen to his interview with a prominent fan, Marc Maron, on his WTF Podcast this past May.