Published Apr 13, 2016With the recent surge in popularity for "real" or "outlaw" country music, many have turned the focal point of discussion about the genre to authenticity. Does the artist check off all the correct boxes to be considered a "real country" artist, and not an interloper schilling bro-centric truck commercial abomination? Is bro-country providing logical sonic evolutions? Are one of these "right" and one "wrong"? I'll save you the time of reading any horrifyingly lengthy think pieces by saying it's a waste of time: pundits of all sides are unbearable and annoying, either frat boys clueless of hillbilly music history or gun-clutching good ol' boys who refuse to let anything drag them into the 21st century.
People will claim that Sturgill Simpson's genre-elevating third album, A Sailor's Guide To Earth, is not country. That's bullshit. To those cowboys who would cry "Judas!," Simpson himself has said, "I'm never going to make anything other than a country record." And so outlaw bloggers (ha!) can have all the time and bandwidth in the world to argue about how Stapleton has saved country music or how Sam Hunt is burning it to the ground. Sturgill Simpson isn't listening.
It's a damn good thing too, because if he did, it's doubtful A Sailor's Guide To Earth would exist. At just under 40 minutes, the record still somehow feels sprawling. Its immense story is buoyed by a sound that's way more Memphis soul than Nashville sheen, touched by Muscle Shoals with blissful horn parts from a few of the Dap-Kings. Inspired by his grandfather's just-in-case death-letter to his wife and child while stationed in the South Pacific during WWII, A Sailor's Guide… features Simpson's most personal and touching songwriting to date, as well as his most ferocious.
"Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)" opens with the sound of seagulls and crashing waves easing into sparkling piano, like something out of the soft haze of a sweet dream. Through bright strings and switching to swaggering horn blasts, the narrator explains his predicament to his wife and son. It's familiar: the life of a sailor, gone so long and so far from his family. It's a simple metaphor for the life of a touring musician as well. "When I get home, it breaks my heart to see how much you've grown," he howls.
A lot of the record is concerned with this father/son dynamic, using down-home tough love, genuine kindness and urging to transcend family history. On "Keep It Between The Lines," over blazing organ lines, horn blasts and smoky steel guitar, he warns his son against making the same mistakes he's made, smashing mailboxes and getting busted selling drugs as a teenager. "Do as I say, don't do as I've done," he yelps. "It don't have to be like father like son." "All Around You" is softer, a minimal R&B number that explains to his son that pain is temporary, and that he's never alone. Simpson dismantles Nirvana's "In Bloom," which reads in context like a warning against becoming a meathead. Even his accidental ending line — "He don't know what it means to love someone," the last phrase being his own invention — takes the song's original sentiment to its logical conclusion and makes it even more vulnerable.
The narrator's wife isn't forgotten. "Oh Sarah," on which she's directly addressed, is one of the record's most clear-eyed and stunning moments. The language is strikingly different than that used with his son — it lays the narrator's turmoil bare, revealing his fear, frustration, anxiety and how Sarah is the figurative lighthouse that keeps him from dashing himself on the rocks, a glow guiding him home.
Most of the story deals with personal emotional matters, but it's also far-reaching, with the narrator's frustration taking centre stage at points to attack Uncle Sam, navy life, ridiculous social norms, screen addiction, consumer culture and other targets. Simpson details his own jaded navy experience — "seeing damn near the whole damn world from the inside of a bar" — on "Sea Stories," the most traditional-sounding country song here, while on the blazing finisher "Call To Arms," a dirty, breakneck pace country rock tune, Simpson can barely contain his anger, snarling as the song threatens to tear itself apart. "They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries," he growls. "Until the bombs fall out of our fuckin' skies."
A Sailor's Guide… positions Simpson as peerless, for now. Other certified authentic honky-tonkers, like Chris Stapleton and Margo Price, are brilliant songwriters, but their music subscribes to traditional country mores. They're doing what's been done before, albeit damn well. Simpson, meanwhile, seems hell-bent on disassembling the genre and piecing it back together the only way that sounds right to him. While the best of the best learn to master country music, he's turning it into a whole new monster, one that's his and his only.
That's how iconoclasts are born. Charles Bukowski once said, "Wherever the crowd goes, run in the other direction. They're always wrong." Sturgill Simpson has been running in a different direction for a while, and with A Sailor's Guide To Earth, he's finally arrived in another world. (Atlantic)