With his debut album, High Top Mountain, from 2013 and the just-out Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the deep-thinking, Nashville-based Sturgill Simpson is hailed as a great and weird new voice in country music, and at the vanguard of a genre grown homogenized with slick sirens and party-hearty bro-country stars. We spoke to Simpson from the road about Ray Charles, good drugs and love as a life philosophy.
On your new album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, you sing about meeting the devil in Seattle and how the quality of life has got you down. Have things improved since you wrote the album?
Things are going great, man. I’ve been focused on home life, and there’s a lot of positivity there. I have a six-week-old baby son. The hoopla and the hype surrounding my career have taken a giant back seat. Ultimately, it’s all a bit of a distraction.
Isn’t the recognition you’re currently enjoying what you’ve been working toward?
I’m 36. Perhaps this has all come at a time when I’m too old, tired and jaded to fully appreciate it. If you’re 26 when all this stuff happens, there’s probably more inclination for your ego to explode and lose sight. So, at 36, I have enough perspective to know that all we’ve been able to accomplish at this point is to have clawed our way to the beginning.
The album title, is that an allusion to Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, from 1962?
About 50 per cent. Ray put that album out at a time when there wasn’t a lot of diversity going on in country music. When we were two songs into the sessions, I fully anticipated this album would be career suicide. A country album about consciousness and outer space? But we just decided to go for it. I want to make records that I feel like I’m not hearing anywhere else.
Do you see yourself as the saviour of country music, as you’ve been described?
I don’t think I am, and I don’t want to be.
Does country music even need saving?
The records I love, the ones that are sitting on my shelves, are doing just fine. There are lot of people, like Lydia Loveless, Jason Eady and Jason Isbell. I could go on and on about all the great country records that have come out. I wrote a record about drugs and turtles, and for some reason, the journalists picked up on that.
In the song Turtles All the Way Down, you mention a few drugs that were helpful in shaping the way you see things, spiritually. True story?
Absolutely. Some of the drugs were therapeutic and helpful. Others aren’t meant for any consumption whatsoever, and have no place on the face of the Earth. For me personally, it’s alcohol. I’m a much better person on this planet without it in my life. I get things done now.
Are there any drugs in particular which you vouch for?
I tried the whole gamut. I found the good drugs are the ones you only need to do once. Everybody is looking for something. After two or three years, if you find yourself recreationally using any narcotic on a regular basis, you’re not doing it to party. You’re escaping something.
In the same song, you mention your pain caused by the old man in the sky and a fabled book, and tell the listener not to bother with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Where are you at now, spiritually?
I don’t question anything any more.
I’m pretty sure there aren’t any answers, at least none that are going to present themselves before you close your eyes and check out.
But what answers have you come up with for yourself, to get by?
I’ve found that a stable, unconditional support system at home is my answer. It’s starting a family and keeping your objectives and your wants in the world very simple. It’s love, really. It’s the only thing that’s ever brought me peace and I guess what we all call happiness. If you have it, you really don’t need much else.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Sturgill Simpson opens for the Zac Brown Band on Aug. 21 and 22 at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre.