For all of the acclaim – and rightfully so – that Simpson’s album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has received this year, so much attention has been paid to drug references and science fiction metaphysics, it’s easy to forget that at the heart of Simpsons songs, both Metamodern and 2013’s High Top Mountain, lies the same themes that have informed country music since its inception. Loss. Regret, bad love and even worse hangovers; it’s all there mixed in with the brighter sides of life.
Last week, Simpson and his stellar band turned the Birchmere into a dusty, boozy honky-tonk with a heart. Whether a knowing wink to the current climate around Country music, or simply something he just felt like knocking out, a near faithful cover of the Willie Nelson classic “Sad Songs and Waltzes” early on in the set made it clear that Simpson thinks, and thinks A LOT, about not just what his music means, but the tradition from whence it sprang.
While all of his current “hits” (“Turtles All The Way Down”, “Life of Sin”) made an appearance, the majority of the evening was split between working through songs from his excellent 2012 release High Top Mountain and runs of self-deprecating storytelling. The time that David Letterman walked past him after their performance offering up “fan-fucking-tastic” without making eye contact. The story of how he got clean in Utah working on the railroad that intro’d “Railroad of Sin” (that one was dedicated to the father of his friend who housed him during that time, and was in attendance at the show). All of these tall-ish tales are part of what makes up the legend of Sturgill Simpson to date, a legend that serves to humanize a largely faceless, and some might say soulless, industry.
Yes, he and his band are peddling that “classic country sound” (sidenote: guitarist Laur Joamets performance was simply jaw dropping, to the point that when someone directed the remark “nice hat” towards Joamets after a song, Simpson instantly shot back “You play guitar like that you can wear anything you want to on your head”), but to say they’re “country” would be missing the point.
“DMT...not as intense as love” Simpson offered up before “Turtles”, grounding what was to come in what he’s been saying all along. Country music has always been the “music of the people”, but it’s also been about [sometimes]brilliant commentary on the human condition with some twang thrown in for good measure.
Sturgill Simpson is not the savior of country music. He isn’t some metamodern agitator, disrupting the very core of the real and true music of the people. And he MOST CERTAINLY isn’t the “Radiohead of country music.
What Sturgill Simpson is, is a stellar fucking musician who is as gifted with the turn of a phrase as he is with the ability to thrill a crowd. You can call that “old-school” if you like, but I prefer to just accept that here’s a guy who knows what he has to do, gets it done each and every time, and we’re all the better for it.