From an interview with Haggard and Sturgill:
Haggard: …I need some inspiration [to write]. I need to write something that says something. There’s a lot going on in the world.
Simpson: There’s so much going on that it numbs my mind that you don’t hear more people writing about it. You can’t live in a cocoon the whole time. My wife uses a railroad analogy: It’s tough to tell how fast a train is going when you’re on it.
So hey Sturgill? It’s going pretty fast for you right now.
As a follower of Sturgill Simpson since he accepted my invitation to play my Nashville show in 2011 (as Sunday Valley), I have a slightly different take on his latest than a lot of what I’ve been reading.
First this “question of genre.” With “Country” being represented by the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, and “Americana” being basically whatever you want it to be, who cares? As of this week, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is no. 1 on the Billboard Country chart and no. 3 overall (only kept from no. 1 by posthumous purchasing reaction to Prince’s death). More areas of American music roots are heard in A Sailor’s Guide than most so-called roots albums. I of course have my own thoughts on what country music is; that it involves the inner soul, what Faulkner once called the human heart in conflict with itself. Other than that, yep, it’s “I know it when I hear it.” Sturgill’s voice will always be country, and that’s critical in defining country music. And A Sailor’s Guide is definitely about the human heart in conflict with itself–and the world as the author introduces his newborn to it, a world with “so much going on that it numbs my mind.” And he doesn’t pull any punches.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a major effort in the evolution of this important artist, and I’m glad to see the masses seem to be agreeing. I’ve always found that country music seems to find a way to “right itself,” usually after a dismal period of departure. But since the somewhat forced invention of a genre to which true roots artists could escape (“Americana”), artistic progression of country music has been problematic; most legitimate country artists seem to be retro, doing nothing particularly new and ultimately going nowhere. Hence the hunger for and success of Metamodern Sounds. However, after just a couple listens to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the whole creation (as it requires and demands a full listen, not just pieces), while perhaps not yet elevating it to the same stratospheric class, I believe the album is in line with Pet Sounds, Love’s Forever Changes, even Tommy and other concept albums that attempt to capture the entire world (as Faulkner once attempted in a single paragraph). At the very least, I applaud Sturgill’s artistic ambition.
Within the country genre, I’m reminded of Mickey Newbury’s brilliant magnum opus Heaven Help the Child. Newbury has been accused of being saccharine at times, especially in Heaven Help, mainly for his ponderous layering of strings. But believe me, the work beneath cuts to the bone. I feel the same about A Sailor’s Guide. And anyone who has not had a child, especially later in life than “traditional,” especially with demands that keep one from home, has absolutely no right to call any work that addresses the resultant relationship sentimental. Perhaps the abundance of horn section (more on that later) and Nirvana covers, etc., was Sturgill’s way of hiding that sentimentality, if that’s what it is. No reason to hide. And if the content of radio country is an indication, thank God for any bro-sentiment in a country song!
A Sailor’s Life has freed its author from the confines of being the “savior” of country music, and more importantly from being captured in any one genre. This is a major work in this reviewer’s opinion. How major remains to be seen. Pet Sounds and Forever Changes were not so recognized upon their release, indeed they sold poorly. There’s no doubt that A Sailor’s Guide, out about a week now, has already surpassed the nearly half-century-old Forever Changes, in this listener’s opinion the greatest album of all time and one that also crosses so many genres.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a culmination (no way is Sturgill going to agree) of what he’s been trying to accomplish, artistically, in gradual steps (yes, gradual believe it or not); I find it leaps and bounds ahead of his previous two releases. Faulkner also said that he’d always fail, but he always wished to fail on a grander scale (many of us don’t believe he, or Sturgill, have failed). Perhaps the feelings behind the album’s theme have allowed for, even demanded, more artistic freedom as writer and producer, and perhaps have resonated with an audience bored to death with today’s co-called country music.
As to “the horns,” which many find out of place (and which I find delightful, especially as I’m dedicating the ninth annual Gram Parsons InterNational Nashville this November in part to R&B and Muscle Shoals), they take me back over four decades to my first listen of Shotgun Willie. What? Horns? In such abundance in an otherwise straightforward country album? Damn straight. Willie escaped RCA Nashville and while we know all about Austin, the critical mass of that revolution involved New York, Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records (Sturgill also joins Atlantic with A Sailor’s Guide). What had been exorcised in Nashville was now desirable, almost drawn into the contract, and the power those horns added to country music was immediate. Together with the aforementioned, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth calls forth Willie’s brilliant Phases & Stages as well as Red Headed Stranger in regard to its using “all the grooves” to fully realize its tale.
I could go on about the individual songs, the interior story lines, but many others are doing that (good one by my friend Mark Lennon of Turnstyled Junkpiled*), and the listener should handle that job him- or herself. Nice work Sturgill, and congrats on the kid. Sounds like he’s got a great dad. And if you feel like joining us again and doing a number with some Muscle Shoals legends this fall, you’ve earned your place among them and would be welcome. You’ve come a long way for sure in five years!