Sturgill Simpson might be country music’s most promising prospect of pulling itself out of the pop-rock musical gutter that it’s currently mired in.
The gutter. You know the one. It’s full of lyrical gems about “jacked-up trucks” and “chillin’ on dirt roads”. It sounds like shitty rock music with an occasional harmonica or slide guitar tacked on as a patronizing afterthought so it can be played on CMT.
But there may be hope for country music yet.
Like a snarling, bitter phoenix rising from the ashes of country music’s corpse, songwriters like Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell are doing their best to remind people that country music, when done well, can be some of the most compelling and authentically American music in the world.
Three songs by Mr. Simpson and his band are below: “Life of Sin”, “Long White Line”, and “Turtles All the Way Down”.
“Life of Sin” and “Long White Line” are rootsy, old-fashioned country songs. You don’t hear country music like this very much anymore, and it’s country radio’s loss. Somewhere out there, I’d like to think that the ghosts of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings are tapping their feet along and nodding approvingly at this guy. Mr. Letterman’s remarks at the end are great too.
“Turtles All the Way Down” is a little more complicated.
Wikipedia describes the phrase “turtles all the way down” as “a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the ‘unmoved mover’ paradox.” (Stick with it a minute.)
Long ago, there was a myth that the earth is actually flat and is supported on the back of a giant turtle, which itself is propped up by a chain of larger and larger turtles.
The origins of the turtle story are uncertain. The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the turtle standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
—Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988
The song touches on Buddhism, Christianity, drugs, love, fate, Atheism, more drugs, the cosmos, and, of course, turtles.
It’s a truly original country song lyrically, musically, and stylistically.
Lyrically, it goes well beyond the aforementioned contemporary country fare (“Hey girl, I like the way them jeans fit / git in mah truck / it’s jacked up and stuff”).
Musically, there’s some spacey psychedelic sound effects, but it still manages to sound like a country song at heart.
Stylistically, the song doesn’t have a chorus.
And to top it off, the video is appropriately weird.
Sturgill Simpson’s recent album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music might be the most genuinely unique country album of the past few years. It’s varied, earnest, strange, thoughtful, and just overall outstanding.
It’s all of that stuff, and it’s only nine songs long.
RIYL: David Allen Coe, Hank Williams, Jr., Willie Nelson, good music