The 36-year-old Kentuckian, crooner, picker and Opry-lauded, second coming of Waylon; Sturgill Simpson boasts a voice of solid country gold and a fuck-it-all outlaw attitude, combined with a poetically downtrodden phraseology—steeped in the vernacular of the honkytonk—and a playfully inquisitive sense of metaphysics. And if you think that sounds pretty far out for a country singer, you're not wrong.
Having seen him rise immediately to widespread critical importance after the May release of his damn near perfect sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
, I expected Friday's sold-out show at Sam's to be imbued with the peculiar electricity that comes along with experiencing an artist at the moment of their creative blossoming. And while the atmosphere was indeed electric and the house was definitely jam-packed, I can't say that everyone seemed to feel the sense of reverence which Simpson is so adept at engendering in those that fully appreciate the patience and understated wit of his music. Sure, it was an 'outlaw' country show, at a burger joint, on a whiskey-to-keep-warm kinda Friday night—I get it. But so many of the crowd talked and shouted and stumbled and turned their unappreciative backs to the main event, through the whole set. Even as Simpson himself remarked on his astonishment at the size and, shall we say, vigor of the crowd, I couldn't help thinking that his stiff-jawed subversion of the tired bro-country ideology of spiritual emptiness and pointless abandon was being a tad bit wasted on these, ahem, wasted folks. Maybe I'm just getting old.
Meanwhile, I was as thoroughly impressed with Simpson and band's set as I had anticipated and hoped. His honeyed and oaken vocals seemed to still the din, at times, and warm attentive listeners to the core. His original songs, which composed most of the hour and a half plus performance, are as they should be in the live setting: loose and idiosyncratic, alternately furious and steely, drunk and rambling, woeful and warm and mind-bending. By the time he made it to the third song of the set, Metamodern
standout and road-dog jaunt “Long White Line,” it was obvious that the man possesses an uncanny command of his unique gifts and that the crowd, raucous and impatient and all, would follow him wherever he'd dare to go. And where he went on the fourth song of the night, to the nonchalantly insightful and absolutely haunting song “Voices,” also off of Metamodern
, was straight to the heart of our collective dysfunction, singing, in his dolefully beautiful warble, “I hear voices all around me in society's depression / Over and over they all recite their first impression.”
A few songs later, Simpson and co. played a rollicking, hard-country, rendition of Metamodern
track “Living the Dream,” and it turned out that the wry and fatalistic brand of rebellion that the song celebrates, struck a mighty chord with the crowd. It was easily the fan-favorite of the night. What a surreal and comforting/disturbing moment it was, when the endless sea of belligerents screamed over Simpson's pained vocal insistence that he doesn't “have to do a Goddamn thing except sit around and wait to die.” Find your bliss, find your blight, I suppose. But, the song is such a middle-finger to the established mores of Nashville, that this instance felt like a victory, nevertheless.
When the band launched into “The Promise,” Metamodern
's tortured and endearing take on When in Rome's 1988 hit, Felicia and I knew it was our only moment to slow dance. So we held each other like we were hearing Waylon sing “Amanda” in the late 1970s and marveled at how a peaceful sway could be so darn refreshing.
The last song Simpson played before the encore was his best song, quite possibly one of the best songs of the year, “Turtles All the Way Down.” The first tune on Metamodern, “Turtles” lays bear Simpson's shoulder-shrugging cosmology and religious skepticism, even while establishing him as a mystical and spiritual artist. From his metamodern, or post-postmodern, perspective, it is no longer preferable to accept ancient wisdom or contemporary science and technology. There is no longer a choice to be made, just a dark and nebulous self to be created, explored and exhausted—all at once.
What Sturgill Simpson does, is tap into the collective unconscious, be it through hallucinogens or genius or attentive patience or all three, and synthesize his own sound at a crossroads between the history of country music and his own personal history of considering and living life. And the results are startlingly good.