Sturgill Simpson screws up a lyric in his cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom. In interviews since the release of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the album which contains the alt-country singer’s breakthrough re-imagining, Simpson has spoken at length about his admiration for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and admits the influence the early ‘90s grunge band holds over his approach to music. He has also formally apologized for misinterpreting the line in the chorus. It seems as though it was an honest mistake, and not just that, but an honest mistake that allowed a more honest album.
Traditionally, male country western artists are hurt and hurtful people. For decades, we have mythologized the recklessness of the archetype, which borrows from the culturally recollected cowboy and outlaw qualities to establish a migratory, unstable, and self-destructive figure. Hank Williams, perhaps the grandfather of outlaw country, lived a short life full of turbulent relationships, but in songs like My Son Calls Another Man Daddy and Your Cheatin’ Heart, Williams’ lyrical perspective never substantially investigates first person fault in the failure.
Similarly, Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line is more of a self-celebration for keeping mostly well-behaved (a description that biographical inspection proves to be partially inaccurate). George Jones’ melancholy ballad He Stopped Loving Her Today, considered by many to be the greatest country song of all time, creates a heartbreaking but blameless story of a man who never recovered from losing the woman he loved the most. Even pristine pop-country pioneer Garth Brooks penned and performed In Another’s Eyes with the woman he would eventually marry after leaving his then-current wife, a turn-of-events not unforeseeable given that the duet has the pair sharing self-pitying lyrics about the hardships of being a cheater.
As alt-left country’s latest hero, it’s difficult to measure the honesty of Simpson’s aesthetic; he may be closer to the slyly performative Bonnie Prince Billy than the aforementioned country culture icons, but something about Simpson, and particularly A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, feels, looks, and sounds incredibly honest. Simpson’s previous album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music introduced a performer who, with his once-familiar earthiness and Waylon-reminiscent vocal stylings, is an immediate darling to country purists who like to lament a lost era “when country was country,” but also one whose lyrical content explores topics completely unfamiliar in the history of the genre, including Stephen Hawking references, lizard people, metaphysics, and hallucinogens. If that album served as our introduction to a 2010s-updated, acid-tripping resurrection of the lost pure country outlaw, then A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which Simpson has claimed his label Atlantic allowed him to self-produce with little to no intervention, operates as that reluctant and anxiety-stricken messiah’s sober and contemplative stepback.
See, when Simpson changes the line in In Bloom from Cobain’s version (“But he knows not what it means/Don’t know what it means, when I say”) to “Don’t know what it means to love someone…,” he is highlighting a theme of self-exploration and improvement that moves all the way through the album. This substituted line is now a direct callback to first track of the album, Welcome to Earth (Pollywog). The opening song, itself a miniature experiment that sees a first verse power ballad break into a swing country celebration, introduces the format of the conceptual album (a lyrical letter penned to Simpson’s newborn son), and just before that twist, Simpson explains “I’ve been told you can measure a man by how much he loves…”
From there, with few deviations, the album explores Simpson’s understanding of himself as a troubled mind and his coming to terms with the effort that is still required to operate as a father, husband, and person while his chosen aesthetic implicitly recognizes his place in the artistic line of country anti-heroes who struggled to do the same under the weight of similar psychological instability. Lyrically, Simpson does what Williams, Cash, Jones, and Brooks did not. He admits his own need for wandering and isolation—in both Welcome to Earth and Oh Sarah, he directly confesses to his wife and son that “there will be times” that he has to leave them, and subsequent lyrics suggest he means in more ways than just touring. But each time, he follows up with a promise to return. He apologizes and pre-apologizes, admits that his struggle isn’t likely to go away soon, and asks for forgiveness for the past and the future (the line “Forgive me if sometimes I seem a little crazy/but goddamn sometimes crazy’s how I feel…” is as naked and vulnerable in its delivery as it is in its content). A Sailor’ Guide to Earth is at once a Psychological Problem Statement and a Statement of Work.
It’s an essay perfectly paired with Simpson’s melancholic and beautiful vocal tones. This time around, his voice still bears its similarity to Waylon Jennings, but there are also hints of Dwight Yoakam’s cool, dark melodies and Roy Orbison’s haunting hollow sadness as well as a dive into swampy southern blues in songs like Brace for Impact. The music is complex and layered in quieter, subtler ways. Swaying strings, piano accompaniments, and soulful horns move like waves within the album’s architecture, the silence at the end of each swing holding a beat longer than expected, like an inescapable thought. It is just as much a throwback as his last album, even if the target has moved a bit. Sturgill Simpson still sounds like someone that fans of country’s former eras will fall in love with, but, once again, his message is concisely pointed in a direction that they have never heard.
This time, however, that alien message is more vital than novel.
As awkward as it might be to list directly, it is functionally necessary to point out here that the consuming audience of the type of classic country that informs Sturgill Simpson’s sound is overwhelmingly white, largely working class, and roughly fifty percent male. Incidentally, both the Centers for Disease Control and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have measured a current spike in the suicide rates for this same demographic. As such, it seems necessary to speculate on the role played by traditional masculine expectations in middle class and rural America, the country-western supported stigma that psychological vulnerability is a form of shameful weakness, and the subtextual “toughen up” remedy recommendation of narrative blue collar art. Given the alarming statistics and the decades-long trend of country heroes living lives of self-destruction and violently tumultuous relationships, Simpson’s readiness to lyrically discuss in open terms his confusion, his depression symptoms, and his psychological pain being compounded by its capacity to hurt others (and perhaps perpetuate a sad cycle) all make A Sailor’s Guide to Earth something of a courageous attempt at a much needed culture shift.
As Simpson explained in an interview to NPR to address why he wrote the album for his son:
I also wanted him to know that it’s very important to me that he doesn’t have to grow up and be this numb, callous person to feel like he’s a man… I wanted him to know it’s okay to be empathetic and compassionate and sensitive and whoever he grows up to be.
While Simpson’s album may be a literal letter to his son, it is also a package gift whose delivery has been too long delayed from its larger audience, a message so alien that that audience might not even pick up on it right away. But in time, Sturgill Simpson’s intersection of classic influence, nostalgic aesthetic, and progressive lyrical content might make more difference than just his upending pop music trends.
Featured Image: Atlantic Records