Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
High Top Mountain Records (2014)
Old School authenticity is the Holy Grail of the musical traditionalist. The closer he comes to evoking the masters of the past in a modern context, the better. He is Music's revisionist historian. You can trace the arc of the prime era Rolling Stones albums in the early work of the Black Crowes.* You won't hear a modern folk act that doesn't search for pre-Newport '65 Bob Dylan. All Stevie Ray Vaughan wanted was to be a walking synthesis of the Great Kings of blues guitar (B.B., Albert, and Freddie). While the traditionalist usually seeks to incorporate something new, more than that, he wants to be authentic.
Sturgill Simpson is a dyed-in-the-wool Outlaw Country traditionalist, with a psychedelic edge. His latest release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is a blast from the future of the Country past. Everybody in Country wants Outlaw credibility; most of the modern artists just want to be Pop even more (i.e., new more than authentic). While he may hit the stage in tennis shoes instead of Laredos, you'll never hear a debate over whether Simpson is a sellout. His music answers the question, accentato. Like early era Old Crow Medicine Show, he walks decades in the past with a 2000's vocabulary. He'd be right at home on the Texas scene in 1974, until his audience got confused by some of his lyrics.
Put yourself in the middle of the wide open country on a cool fall evening, your boots up on a log and a fire focusing your attention. Metamodern is playing. Instead of a Budweiser in your hand, there's a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Besides the above-transistor quality of the Bluetooth speaker and the rich flavor of the beer, you'd swear you were in 1978 listening to deep tracks of a non-greatest hits Waylon Jennings release that George Jones produced. It's all there, the slide guitar, the growling baritone ... then this (from opening track, "Turtles all the way Down"):
There's a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there,Whoa! Wait a minute! Did Phish make a Country record?!?
Far beyond this place,
Where reptile aliens made of light,
Cut you open, pull out all your pain.
Indeed, Simpson is notoriously unafraid of mind-expanding chemicals. There's just enough trippiness and reverb in his music to fix it in the present (witness the non-Outlaw, two-minute Country electronica jam that serves as an album coda in "It Ain't All Flowers"), but it's just under the surface. He may be a hippie at heart, but he can play the pissed off misanthrope shitkicker when he needs to, as in the slow-boil Telecaster growl of "Living the Dream." In "Life of Sin," he toasts the Bad Life in Luckenbach dance hall two-step style. He channels Willie Nelson's (his idealogical, if not musical, forbear) tender side on the philosophically mellow finger-picking of "Voices." Just when things seem stuck in the gutter of the Low Life, he picks the listener up with the Country Gospel swing of "A Little Light," then looks boldly forward with the soaring pedal steel elegance of "Just Let Go." There are no Country covers here, but Simpson makes an enchanting turn of When in Rome's 1988 minor electric dance hit, "The Promise," sound like a late night on Sixth Street in Austin.
Sturgill Simpson is the genuine article. Metamodern is an engaging lesson in perfectly-executed traditionalism, with an invigorating modern twist that even a Country amateur can sink his teeth into.
* Shake Your Money Maker was the Crowes' Sticky Fingers; The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was their Exile on Main Street.
Correction: An earlier version of this post identified Metamodern Sounds as Simpson's debut album. It is actually his second, the first being 2013's High Top Mountain.