November 10, 2014
A few months ago, a friend sent me the song “Turtles All the Way Down” in an email. No comments, context or pre-conceived notions. Hearing this song, which I can only describe as psychedelic country soul, reminded me of the way I felt the first time that I heard “Hot Burrito #1” by The Flying Burrito Brothers, or The Byrds’ version of “Wasn’t Born To Follow.” What was just as startling was that this genre-melting song wasn’t some lost classic from the late 1960s, but a new song by Sturgill Simpson, from his new album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This, I thought to myself, needs some further listening to.
In the time since then, a lot of other people have caught on to Simpson, whose sound recalls an era and intelligence in country music that its current iteration has largely forgotten about. “We first came to Charlotte to play the Thirsty Beaver,” recalled Simpson from the stage of his sold-out show at the Chop Shop. “Then we played the Evening Muse last year to 70 people, then I don’t know what the fuck happened.” Sturgill’s audience shares his love for different musical genres. They danced just as easily to Michael Jackson as they did to Ray Charles and Johnny Paycheck being played over the venue’s PA system before the show. There is still some catching up to do on their knowledge of Sturgill’s influences. Many fans danced enthusiastically when Simpson played a hip-hop song as his intro music, but became silent when Simpson announced that he was covering a song by bluegrass legend Carter Stanley, who left us all too soon. Still, they were listening, and were more than happy to be along for the ride.
Opener Cris Jacobs started a little late than had been originally scheduled, and it took a few songs for his mix of traditional Americana and blues songs to catch on with the audience. When Jacobs picked up a cigar box guitar in the middle of his set, playing it in the style of a lap steel with a slide, the crowd at last caught on to Jacob’s show, and stayed there with him until the end of his set. Jacobs is a fine singer and performer, and one that you should check it when he comes back to town.
In the confines of the Chop Shop, the packed audience had the feel of a honky-tonk that was beginning to burst beyond capacity. It allowed for some of the subtleties of Simpson’s studio recordings to get lost in this live setting. Simpson recognized that, and adjusted his set to where his audience wanted to go. Simpson performed plenty of up-tempo songs and allowed the ballads to become singsongs. Even “Turtles All the Way Down” appeared in the set in subdued form, with the audience singing and cheering the entire night. Simpson is not an overly-effusive performer, but he is direct and effective, and his three-piece band is as good and tight as you’d ever want to hear. In some ways, this show was as much a celebration for the audience themselves as it was for Simpson and his recent success. The joy of finding an artist that shares your love of different sounds both old and now, and realizing that you are far from alone in your love of that music.
Where does Simpson go from here? Will he be the vanguard of a new movement in country music, as some would like him to be? The next Waylon Jennings? Kris Kristofferson? I will be happy if he has the chance to continue to be the first Sturgill Simpson, evolving and growing in his ideas. Hopefully, his audience will do the same. That is a possibility that I would love to see and hear, all the way down.
Listen to the album Metamodern Sounds In Coutry Music by Sturgill Simpson