A surprise nomination at last week’s Grammy announcements has left the world wondering who exactly is Sturgill Simpson? And why is he on-par with superstars Beyonce and Adele?
Last week, the American country singer left many music fans baffled after his third album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys. Up against Beyonce’s revolutionary ‘Lemonade,’ Adele’s heartbreaking ’25,’ Drake’s radio-friendly ‘Views,’ and Justin Bieber’s comeback album ‘Purpose,’ even Simpson himself wasn’t expecting it, telling the New York Times he wished Frank Ocean had got it instead.
But the 38-year old country outsider is adored by critics, and he’s on his way to becoming a household name.
Most would label Simpson as a country artist, though he’s made it clear that he’s anything but a tractor-driving, boot-wearing modern day cowboy. He doesn’t even listen to country music, and it shows in this self-produced third opus that draws inspiration from a list of musical genres as long as War & Peace. There’s some Skynyrd and early progressive rock influence sitting next to motown horns, Southern gospel, and a Nirvana cover that is unstoppable. It’s a departure not only from the genre, but from the work on his previous two LPs.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is his first to be released on a major label (Atlantic), and though it dropped back in April, the Grammy’s sparked a slew of new interest in the Nashville singer/songwriter’s latest work.
The album serves as a letter to his son, who was born only shortly after the release of his second album. Using his time in the Navy as inspiration, Simpson crafted the nine tracks around ideas of love and loneliness, weaving life lessons between striking guitars and airy strings, soulful ballads and roaring anthems.
Simpson’s deep baritone is often compared to Waylon Jennings, and it shines in the dreamy ‘Breakers Roar,’ a track full of pensive pedal steel guitars that warns his son of depressive episodes and melancholia. The brassy ‘Keep it Between the Lines’ comes next. “Everything will be fine/long as you stay in school/stay off the hard stuff/and keep between the lines,” Simpson advises. It sounds like a mash-up between Alan Jackson and James Brown, and it works surprisingly well.
The nautical theme returns in full force on ‘Sea Stories’, a rustic take on a sailor’s sea shanty. It’s an autobiographical tale about his time in the Navy, and it’s where Simpson sounds the most country. One of the weakest tracks, it’s outshined by the ‘In Bloom’ cover that follows. Much like Johnny Cash’s transformative cover of ‘Hurt’, this take on the grunge classic is sensational, and adding “to love someone” after the chorus completely reworks the original meaning. It’s completely unexpected, a little jarring at times, but the lyrics fit Simpson’s country twang surprisingly well, and the brass-section elevates it beyond a heavy alternative track. It’s nothing like Kurt Cobain would have imagined, but somehow, I don’t think he’d mind the new approach.
The lead single, ‘Brace For Impact (Live A Little)’ comes mid-way through, a bluesy song that waxes the importance of living life to the fullest. There’s a hint of 70’s psychedelic rock on the chorus, and it’s where Simpson sounds the most natural. It’s arguably the best track in the bunch. The spiritual ‘All Around You’ also shines, recalling days of soul and gospel choirs. The sax breakdown brings it home, gliding effortlessly into ‘Oh Sarah’, another touching ballad that narrates the loneliness and isolation of a marriage ripped apart by distance.
Simpson closes things out with ‘Call To Arms,’ a punchy protest anthem that is his most un-country effort yet. With lyrics like “Well they sent their sons and daughters off to die for some war/ to control the heroin/ well, son I hope you don’t grow up believin’/ that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man,” Simpson carries the anti-war message all the way through to the last beat. It’s the loudest track on the record by far, filled with roaring guitar solos and the rowdiest horn section on the whole album. It ends with metaphorical-guns blazing, proof that country music isn’t all sunshine and tractors; it’s gritty, tough, and emotional.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth may be Simpson’s carefully crafted note to his new baby boy, but it’s also a love letter to the music that made him. The album is a thoughtful and touching look at his own inspirations and challenges. It’s less of a letter and more like a beautiful bedtime story, one full of nautical adventures and heartbreaking tales about love, morality, and most importantly, music.