Still Rock And Roll To Me: Sturgill Simpson
Still Rock And Roll To Me is a column where various editors and contributors at TIDAL defend examples of what they believe exemplifies music at its most real, touching on all styles, genres, mediums and more. The views presented in each piece will reflect the opinions of the specific author, but the greater series serves as a growing definition of what we’ll call “the elusive and alluring spirit of rock and roll.” For a better sense of where we’re coming from, read the manifesto here.
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On Wednesday night, November 2, the Country Music Association will be hosting their annual CMA Awards ceremony, marking the 50th anniversary of the affair meant to honor and recognize outstanding achievement within the realm of country music.
Among those nominated, familiar faces include the likes of Eric Church, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Garth Brooks, alongside a slew of additional kindred and ubiquitous country mainstays. But for those who have paid even the slightest bit attention to the genre in the last year, one omission in the nominations, though expected, proves wholly preposterous. The omission in question? The Kentucky-born and bred, 38-year-old sensation known as Sturgill Simpson.
Simpson – the first man in his family not to work in a coal mine, who’d go on to join the Navy and wander the world before starting a short-lived bluegrass outfit, calling it quits and subsequently shipping out West to work on the Union Pacific Railroad before ultimately reemerging as the celebrated solo artist he is today – is a man whose story is the masculine mythology of Americana realized. In fact, his cinematic story is one perhaps only matched by that of the late Outlaw Country legend Merle Haggard, Sturgill’s idol and friend. Simpson is neither a phony and, much like Haggard before him, nor does he tolerate them.
Given both Sturgill Simpson’s personal and professional relationship with Haggard, coupled with their shared distaste for the sort of radio-ready pop-country so often propagated by Nashville and its country music kingmakers, it wasn’t entirely surprising when he brutally blasted the Academy of Country Music on Facebook in August for the body’s newly established Merle Haggard Spirit Award. Thinking it to be born of greed capitalizing on Haggard’s postmortem praise, rather than of sincere admiration, Simpson views the ACM’s action here as disingenuous, opportunistic and, in his own words, “disgusting.”
The fact of the matter is that both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association are representative of the Nashville establishment, a constituency directly at odds with the mentality and practices behind what we’ll call Outlaw Country. Championed by Merle Haggard alongside the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, among others, the movement sprang from a desire to “to escape the formulaic constraints of the Nashville sound,” a slick, pop-focused sound initially established in the 1950s to “revive country sales, which had been devastated by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they’ve been pumping down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years,” Simpson wrote in part of the aforementioned 1,000-plus word Facebook post. Drawing heavily from the Outlaw Country mentality, Simpson’s disdain for the Nashville establishment and its mouthpieces is rooted in his distaste for the scene’s perceptible commercialize-to-rise guiding mentality. In his defiance towards the well-traveled, and admittedly well-loved, pop-country path and in his subsequent willingness to question and criticize the aims of the genre’s establishment, Simpson argues that one need not play ball with entrenched commercial interests to achieve recognition or success. He speaks for the disenfranchised outsider.
“If you pour your heart out,” he offers in an interview with the Nashville Scene, “and you’re honest with yourself and your human experience and your life, and you put that into music, you don’t have to be talented. … People will connect, and they’ll spread it for you. You don’t need radio. You don’t need some big machine throwing it out there. I’m living proof of that. … I want people out there that are in the position I was in four years ago to know that there’s hope.”
And in the wake of Sturgill’s superb 2016 album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, his success is all but undeniable. A Cosmic American blend of Stax-era Elvis, old time rock ‘n’ roll, Marvin Gaye, Nirvana and more, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth shot to the top of the country charts and to number three on the Billboard 200, despite no support whatsoever from Nashville’s Music Row. But the album is far more than some mere commercial smash, the record comfortably sits among the most critically acclaimed releases in this unbelievable year for music, putting the relative newcomer just behind the likes of David Bowie, Beyoncé, Radiohead and Leonard Cohen. And yet, no CMA nomination.
“Sturgill Simpson Embodies Crossover Success With Brooklyn Blowout: singer transcends country music with a rock and soul-influenced revue in New York City,” read a headline in Rolling Stone in early October. Sturgill’s story, success and resulting lesson are on the truth behind the corny virtues of being true to one’s self. It’s the story of a man willing to hold out rather than sell out. It’s the sort of story that one so often sees when looking back on the rise of our most treasured artists and leaders; the sort of story where by daringly stepping beyond the bounds of convention, one ultimately surpasses the field’s supposed confines in ways previously unimaginable. It’s the story of the relationship between hard work, self worth and rock ‘n’ roll and, CMA Award or not, it’ll soon be familiar to millions.
“The industry’s not gonna give it to me. And at this point I don’t want them to. I’m going to prove to them I can do it. In 10 years I’ll be the biggest country star on this planet, I guaran-fuckin’-tee it. And there’s nothing they can do to stop that,” he says in his Nashville Scene interview, continuing, “I’m gonna do it now out of spite. And I’m gonna go play rock ’n’ roll, too, and take all those fuckin’ people, and I’m going to build a little army. And you’ll come to my show, and it’ll be four hours long, and it’ll be an American music show. It won’t be a country music show, Americana music show or a soul music show. We’re gonna hit it all, we’re gonna touch it all, because I love it all. And I want to love everybody.”
Rock on, Sturgill. We’re right behind you.
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