I am most definitely not a fan of country music. Don’t get me wrong, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and the like will always have a special place in my heart, but Toby Keith is one of the worst musicians of the last 50 years. And I stand by that. I generally don’t mind the instrumentation, but the twang just rubs me the wrong way. But for every rule, there’s an exception. After hearing endlessly about Sturgill Simpson and seeing him on early end of the year lists, I finally decided to give him a shot. Boy am I glad I did.
If you can’t handle even the smallest bit of twang, don’t bother. Simpson is clearly a country musician, but what’s he’s doing is pushing the envelope of what traditional country music is all about. As an example, the first track on the album, “Turtles All the Way Down,” which will certainly be on my end of the year list, is inspired by a famous Stephen Hawking quote. And, if that’s not different from the status quo for you, there’s this line: “Every time I take a look inside inside that old and fabled book,/ I’m blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky.” Often times on this album, it feels as if Simpson is intentionally singing country music that breaks the mold.
“Life of Sin”, the second track, is going to remind just about anyone of the classic honky tonk sound from the 60s and 70s. It’s a fun juxtaposition of the classic country sound with the idea of “I thank God for this here life of sin.” This is just one of many examples of what Simpson does well. Another of my favorites from the album is “Living the Dream,” a song very much about enjoying the ride. “There ain’t no point getting out of bed if you ain’t livin’ the dream,/ Like makin’ a big old pot of coffee when you ain’t got no cream.”
Simpson also does some wonderful slower tracks including “Voices” and the beautiful “The Promise,” the latter of which is about simply being there for someone. It’s a romantic song, but one that is more classically romantic than lovingly romantic. It’s slow, it’s melodic, and it’s beautiful. But perhaps the most important choice Simpson made was ending the album with “It Ain’t All Flowers.” This ending track is a brilliantly bluesy country tune that shows that not only does he have the twang and the songwriting chops, but he can wail on a guitar. “It ain’t all flowers, sometimes you gotta feel the thorns.”
While I can say as much as I want about Simpson, he sums it up best with a line from “Living the Dream:” “I don’t need to change my strings,/ Cause the dirt don’t hurt the way I sing.” Simpson may very well break down some of those traditional country walls and make some new friends along the way. I’d count myself there. If there were more country like this, I’d most certainly be an ardent supporter.