“Some people will say I’m trying to run from country, but I’m never going to make anything other than a country record. As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song.”
The words above, spoken by American country music and roots rock singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, depict his feelings about his music. When speaking about his most recent studio album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson said “I wanted it to be an exploration of all the different types of music that I love—a musical journey. I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, a lot of Bill Withers. I like the way George Harrison sings and tried to merge that.” It’s not uncommon for a musician to list various artists as influences for their endeavors. Sturgill Simpson’s music echoes all the above-mentioned artists, and then some. However, his road to music superstardom is another truly fascinating tale.
John Sturgill Simpson was born June 8, 1978 in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, the son of a secretary and a state policeman who formerly worked undercover narcotics. Simpson’s mother’s family were coal miners. Simpson is the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in a strip mine or deep mine.
Simpson enlisted in the US Navy as a teenager and shipped out to basic training just two weeks after graduating high school. A few months later, he found himself on a frigate in Southeast Asia, spending ninety days at sea on a cramped, gray boat, then a few days at a different port.
The move toward music was somewhat later in life than most artists. Simpson formed the bluegrass band Sunday Valley in 2004. After some time playing in the band Simpson took a break from music, focusing on building a career at a Salt Lake City railroad freight-shipping yard for Union Pacific Railroad, which he eventually ended up managing. With support from his friends and wife Simpson never strayed too far from making music. After playing local open mics and gigs, Simpson returned to Sunday Valley, which played at the Pickathon festival in Portland, Oregon in 2011. He and his wife moved to Nashville when the group disbanded in 2012.
After going solo, Simpson released his début album High Top Mountain in 2013, which he self-funded, self-released, and had cut in Nashville before signing to British independent label Loose, who released the album in Europe in 2014. The record is named after a cemetery near Jackson where many of his family are buried. Although the album did not receive much attention on its release and debuted at No. 47 on the Top Country Albums chart, some writers heard something special. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic rated High Top Mountain 3 1/2 stars out of 5, comparing its sound favorably to Waylon Jennings. Erik Ernst of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel also compared it to Jennings, saying that it had “rich vintage sounds, heartbreaking ballads and juke-joint ramblers”.
Sturgill Simpson’s followup album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music brought about a different initial response from the music industry. The album made two separate “Top Albums of 2014” lists in The New York Times and was also called the best album of the year by American Songwriter. Simpson made his US network television début on July 14, 2014, on the Late Show with David Letterman, playing “Life of Sin”. That year, he would go on to play “Living the Dream” on a September episode of Conan, “Turtles All the Way Down” on an October episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and “The Promise” on a December episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers. Sturgill Simpson at this point became one of the new stars of Country music. However, there would be even bigger moments in his career.
On April 16, 2016, Simpson released his third studio album titled A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. The album won Best Country Album at the 59th Grammy Awards; it was also nominated for Album of the Year. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, selling 52,000 copies (55,000 units when tracks and streams are included) in its first week. The album sold a further 13,400 copies in the second week. The album has sold 204,800 copies in the US as of May 2017. As a result Sturgill Simpson was making appearances everywhere. No longer were many people asking, “Who Is Sturgill Simpson”? For me, there was one more appearance that I anxiously awaited.
In January 2017, Simpson appeared on the Felicity Jones-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. I thought the performance would be good, but what transpired needed a better description. The performance by Simpson and his band was electrifying. I have seen many live performances on SNL by musicians of every popular genre. Sturgill Simpson gave us one of the best SNL shows I have ever seen. It must have been somewhat special to his band members too because they would take a five month hiatus. Simpson just recently resumed touring.
As Sturgill Simpson continues to tour the world, he is fighting to find the balance between the music and his family life. I think he can and will. He spoke about what he’s doing now and why. “I know what music has done for me in my life in terms of offering some kind of direction and comfort,” he says. “I might be out there in the middle of tour wondering how I’m going to keep doing this when I’m missing everything at home. But it’s also making a lot of people happy that I’ve never met before. So it’s worth it. I think my wife understands that. Hopefully my son will too. When he’s old enough, maybe he can come with me.”