“Country music is just about hope and redemption and sorrow and pain and loss and everything at the same time.” — Sturgill Simpson, circa 2011.
Sturgill Simpson is not interested in being anyone’s peg. Round hole, square unit, he doesn’t give a shit about the narratives that listeners or journalists or the powers that be would bestow upon him like a mantle. Instead, Sturgill is interested in what he’s always told us changed his life: Love, pain, and the whole damn thing.
To posit Sturgill as the gateway drug for artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell is, frankly, erroneous. A wealth of artists have been steadily plugging away down in Nashville and the deeper south for years on end, producing records of similar caliber and skill, but receiving none of the mainstream media attention Simpson has. And you know what, that’s totally fine. Neither the still-obscure musicians who will continue to labor in this vein, nor Simpson’s own success need be thrown under the bus. This guy is fucking good at what he does, I am not here to undermine that. But what does need to be thrown under the bus is the short-sighted instinct the uninformed have to seize upon a well-known outsider as though they typify a “shift” or a “change” in the genre, when the reality is, they typify a shift in what the audience is willing to consider. The success of Sturgill Simpson isn’t really about country music, the success of Sturgill Simpson is about you. Which works out, since A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is also, at its heart, about you.
Like Simpson, both Stapleton and Isbell were laboring in the country music trenches prior to their solo debuts–or at least, before the ones that people sat up and paid attention to. (Isbell in particular has a solid back catalogue that you should spend some time excavating if you think this sound is anything new.) The same goes for Simpson in a sense, his old outfit Sunday Valley has been around in some iteration since 2004, and watching the film from 2011 that promotes their album To The Wind And On To Heaven might give people a sense of how deep and wide Sturgill’s taste is. (His old band’s real breakout came during a folk festival in Oregon, natch). But to say A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is “not country,” is to again miss the mark by a mile; it’s just an exploration of yet another realm of the many-pocketed genre. Oh, and “Oh Sarah” comes from those Sunday Valley days–you can watch him performing it just a month after she married him in the video above. If anything, Simpson’s stubborn determination not to recreate his 2014 breakout Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is a credit to his desire to both grow as an artist and honor his own past.
Back to untangling timelines–Isbell picked up with the Drive By Truckers in 2001 and Stapleton moved to Nashville that same year, so again, dubbing their recent mainstream success as some sort of outlaw resurgence isn’t about the music, it’s about the audience for it. This is an audience that seems to have developed out of some self-righteous desire to hear old-fashioned country music made (mostly) by men who fit their idea of working class stereotype in more ways than Luke Bryan does, which, fair enough! But what’s more interesting, and perhaps the only thing that these three actually have in common, is that they all did spend years leading or playing in other bands before fully re-establishing as solo artists. There aren’t many country bands that are attaining commercial success–even Zac Brown band needs his name to be recognizable–so going solo may be more to thank than anything else.
Whatever Sturgill may think about the way he is portrayed, he stays silent about it. This is the move of a wise and lucky player, who knows not to mess with what works even when what works is sometimes hogwash. So instead of talking about outlaw country, or how Simpson has sparked a resurgence of something that’s existed all along, I want to change the conversation. I want to talk about Simpson in the company of someone he has actually cited as an inspiration, Ricky Skaggs. What A Sailor’s Guide To Earth most reminds me of is a weird and wildly Christian album Skaggs put out in 1991 called My Father’s Son. When it came time to reestablish as a solo artist, Sturgill mentioned Skaggs, and it makes sense since they’re both Kentucky-born and share bluegrass roots.
Like A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, My Father’s Son was a bit of a departure from Skagg’s primary form (bluegrass), and though it’s a reversal of roles, like Sailor it concerns itself mainly with father son and family relationships. (It does also include a duet with Waylon Jennings on his “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line.”) The albums don’t necessarily sound the same, but they occupy a similar ethos and sentiment, they hone in on family and our place in this country, and the cosmos at large. They’re both attempting to serve as guidelines for those coming after them; they’re both country, they share a heart. This is just one of countless albums you could talk about that Sailor nudges toward and honors (though I’d say Simpson’s take is decidedly more existential than plenty of his forbearers), but frustratingly, these narratives and actual inspirations are lost under a weirdly twisted idea that it is only these three guys consistently making incredibly diverse music in the country realm, and that since they’re contemporaries, they somehow inspired or influenced one another.
So Sailor is an extension of Sunny Valley, and Ricky Skaggs, and Sturgill himself, and it really doesn’t need to have much in common with Stapleton or Isbell. It truly doesn’t, either. Listening to his mind-boggling Nirvana cover, which takes on even more meaning considering how many people like the character in the song surely exist in communities Simpson grew up immersed in, it’s easier to draw comparisons to Cobain himself. I’m guessing that’s the point of covers like that and his T.Rex staple, they gesture more directly and realistically to his influences–and to his actual peers. Not that you’ll hear Sturgill mention it. Instead, he lets his music be everything at the same time; hope and redemption and sorrow and pain and loss. That’s why it’s country.