On Thursday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, country singer Sturgill Simpson played his second sold-out New York City show in as many days. A country singer selling out a New York venue? That’s right: Simpson played to a room packed full of people who know every word to songs from his 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Every genre has at least one artist like Simpson — a critically favored singer who appeals to old-fashioned notions of “authenticity.” In R&B, you have D’Angelo; in rap, you have Kendrick Lamar. These men favor album-length statements, and they’re immediately linked with legendary figures from the past: for Simpson, the ’70s country outlaws; for D’Angelo, pick your favorite Soul Man; for Lamar, Illmatic-era Nas.
There can be a frustrating streak in the discussion that surrounds these artists — they attract nonsense descriptions like “real [insert genre here] music.” (Prince famously satirized this phenomenon in 1982 with his song “All the Critics Love U in New York:” “The reason that you’re cool/ Is ‘cuz you’re from the old school, and they know it.”) To Simpson’s credit, he has repeatedly refused to be drawn into debates about the state of modern country music, even when writers practically beg the guy to say something nasty about the rest of the genre. While Simpson doesn’t get played on country radio, it’s important to remember he’s part of the country music ecosystem, and an ecosystem needs a center. Without it, the fringes lose definition and become amorphous.
Simpson was anything but amorphous Thursday night: His set was concise, elegant and visceral. He claimed he was getting over an illness and chugged mug after mug of tea, but he was as energetic — if not more so — than he was during his last swings through town, with maybe an extra touch of ragged feeling in his voice. (In the last year, Simpson has played at both Rockwood City Music Hall and Joe’s Pub — being critically favored means lots of trips up to New York City.)
The casually superb band on stage with Simpson — Laur Joamets on guitar, Miles Miller on drums, Kevin Black on bass — is the same one that played on Metamodern Sounds; they’re as tightly knit as any young band you’ll find. Joamets’ playing is unassuming but excellent; he’s a guitar hero without any of the stupid posturing that usually makes such heroics intolerable. (His Estonian background has earned him lots of attention.) Joamets shined during the bluegrass-influenced portions of the set, churning out tightly packed streams of notes, his guitar running down the beat like a predator stalking his prey. During ballads, he has a unique way of filling space — not limiting himself to simply punching the rhythm, but never getting in the way of Simpson’s vocal either.
It would be hard to get in the way of Simpson: he likes to open lines with a roar like a well-tuned engine. Some singers build power gradually, but this one just dives in full throttle. At times, he bit syllables off harshly to emphasize lines like “I don’t have to do a Goddamn thing except sit around and wait to die.” When tackling ballads, his voice rang out in the clear, slightly nasal style that characterizes many of the great traditional male country singers.
Tradition is important, but when people draw a line straight from Simpson to Waylon Jennings, they miss a lot of kindred spirits in between. Take Simpson’s “Old King Coal,” from his first album, with the line “so go back to your city now, ’cause this ain’t your town.” Eric Church recently had a top-five country hit with “Give Me Back My Hometown,” a track voicing a similar sentiment in similar fashion under its radio-friendly sheen. (Church’s “Like a Wrecking Ball” isn’t too far from some of Simpson’s raw country-soul numbers either.)
For another example of a like-minded artist, look at the singer Dwight Yoakam (young country listeners might have seen him providing tender backing vocals for Brandy Clark at the Grammy Awards on Sunday). In the early ’90s, Yoakam compiled a popular discography littered with hard-headed honky-tonk records that explode much like Simpson’s tougher tracks.
Just as Simpson isn’t as far to the left of country’s mainstream as people think, he’s not as much of a classicist as everyone makes him out to be either. It attracted a lot of attention when he covered the ’80s pop song “The Promise” (originally a hit for When In Rome) on Metamodern Sounds. At Music Hall of Williamsburg, his band kept pushing outside of “traditional” country and colonizing other styles.
In particular, Simpson and co. illustrated a strong connection between country and funk, transitioning smoothly from the big two-note bass lines that characterize the 70s Outlaw sound to something more slippery and elastic. Simpson and Joamets are out front with the riffs, but they’re wild and free because they have a potent rhythm section behind them: Black and Miller were flexible and springy. Miller shifted from a full-speed charge into flickering, rimshot funk with dizzying ease.
Back on his first album, Simpson declared his underdog status with “You Can Have the Crown.” On record, the song is a pure missile of frustration. Live, he slowed it down and added a bass-heavy strut, molding it into a a victor’s anthem full of pure swagger. Simpson is wearing a crown rather he wants it or not.