My first impression of Sturgill Simpson was of a man that embodied a duality of seemingly contradictory attributes – carefree determination. It was September of 2011 and over a pitcher of beer Simpson and I discussed his custom made telecaster (by him), the wonders of Bill Monroe and his recent debut on the stage at the Pickathon festival in Oregon a few days before. We also talked about his mini-tour he was then undertaking, with his then band Sunday Valley and his dad helping out with the driving, making way toward their new home in Nashville.
“Nashville? Why would you go there?” I asked him, believing Simpson’s “Outlaw” throwback style that placed him among contemporaries like Whitey Morgan or a more genteel Hank Williams III, would not fit well within the Music Row ear confection machine.
I believed this in 2011 but no longer do. After many trips, meeting many brilliant musicians and seeing dozens of great shows in Nashville and experienced the music community thriving outside of Music Row. I’m assuming that Simpson was aware of that burgeoning scene and had a long plan to work within that community and follow his music wherever it led him.
This eventually led him to a gig at The Basement where artist manager Marc Dottore first heard him. That led to representation by media relations firm
Sacks & Co, and the RED Distribution team. All working on the little more than faith that the man they represented tied the past to the future with a biting snarl and unabashed twang.
By 2013 I had a feeling that a tipping point had occurred. His performances at the Americana Music Association conference, a Bluegrass Situation and Groove records BBQ (see a clip below) showcases are still vivid memories, were heavily attended by people that didn’t go to any of the other conference’s live showcases. Many showed up in Sturgill concert t-shirts they had snatched up at one of the multiple sold-out shows he had performed tirelessly throughout the year.
Several years before I had merely strolled up to Sturgill in a seedy bar to engage him. Now I was in a journalist que at the Nashville Marriott, waiting my turn to be shepherded upstairs to the empty dining area overlooking the bustling lobby of the hotel. Once there Sturgill was the same man I remembered. Relaxed smile, talking about classic country, the fickleness of the music business, the absurdity that country music needs a savior. The discussion was insightful and the hour went by fast and, unfortunately, the recording of the discussion is lost to the ages due to a technology glitch.
Then came the breakout second album ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ produced by Dave Cobb. The album had universally positive reviews and helped to put both men on the hot musical map.
Then came the Late Show with David Letterman, Conan (twice), Jimmy Fallon, the Grand Ole Opry and at Austin City Limits and Keith Urban wearing a Sturgill concert shirt on American Idol.
What ‘Metamodern Sounds…” began 2016’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ completed in spades. The album bowed in at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, eventually hitting No. 1 Folk and
Rock Albums charts.
Now Sturgill is a two-time Grammy nominee up for Best Country Album for his least country album and for the big prize, Album of the Year award.
This isn’t Sturgill’s first Grammy nomination. ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ was up for Best Americana Album against John Hiatt, Keb’ Mo’, Nickel Creek and the winner Rosanne Cash.
Sturgill nomination for Album of the Year award isn’t the category’s first roots album. That distinction belongs to Ray Charles ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ (where ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ cribbed its title) in 1963. If he wins Sturgill won’t be the first roots artist to win in that category. That would be Glen Campbell ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ in 1969.
But Sturgill’s nomination for Album of the Year is significant in that it shows a teenage Sturgill out there watching that dogged diligence and a guiding independent spirit can lead you to a place where you can not only play your music to pay your bills, but you could be placed in contention with Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and Drake for national attention.
Win or lose this can open doors.
Simpson’s path is one of sheer will and self-determination that surprisingly touched a nerve in music fans starving for something real.
I’m pulling for him.