Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson (Reto Sterchi / August 21, 2014)

Critics went nuts when Kentucky-based singer songwriter Sturgill Simpson released "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," his second album, earlier this year. The New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork: they all gushed. Simpson, whose mother's family worked in the coal-mining industry (check out "Old King Coal" from "High Top Mountain," Simpson's more-traditional debut album), was hailed as the long-awaited savior of country music, a psychedelic outlaw, the second coming of Waylon Jennings (with a better voice). There's talk of a Grammy nod. At the end of Simpson's television debut on the "Late Show," where he performed "Life of Sin" with his crack-shot quartet, Letterman seemed genuinely blown away. At 36, Simpson's a late bloomer, but perhaps that's for the best; with his wild years behind him, he's focused on making good records and playing live shows, not chasing the trappings of fame.

Simpson performs at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Wednesday, Aug. 27. CTNow spoke with the musician by phone about his accomplishments and future plans.

CTNow: You haven't really started the big part of the tour yet, correct?

Sturgill Simpson: No, we've just done some supporting stuff mostly, and I've been in Europe since the record came out for the most part, so we're really just getting ready to start touring the album in the States.

CTNow: I was watching a clip of the Letterman performance, which I guess that was your national television debut. Dave really seemed to like the performance. I can't remember hearing him at the end of a song being so enthusiastic. What was the experience like for you? Was the whole thing positive?

SS: Yeah, incredibly positive. Obviously, just to get on any of those programs for an independent band is a pretty big break, especially with Dave in the last year, it was probably a pretty coveted spot. A lot of industry folk probably want to take advantage of that. But to be honest, it was a little surreal, and the actual taping in front of the audience went by so fast that none of us... After it was over and we were upstairs, we already had kind of forgotten what had happened until we got back to the hotel later that night and saw it on TV. But yeah, I was so nervous when he walked over, I didn't know how he was going to respond. So he was a little hard to read, he's got a great poker face. (Laughs.) He was taller than I expected too, ominously tall.

CTNow: That set is a lot different in person than when you see it on TV too.

SS: Oh, yeah, it's so small in person. Like with the camera angle, it's amazing, just standing behind the cameras and looking at the views of the lens. What they can do is incredible, how much it really stretches it out, but it was a little shocking walking into the theater, because it really is a tiny, tiny little space. The band is no more than 15 feet away from Dave's desk.

CTNow: From what I've read, you took a bit of a risk around 2012, when you decided you were going to self-fund the recording of "High Top Mountain." What were some of the factors that went into your decision to do that? It seems like a pretty big turning point for you. What kind of led you down that path?

SS: Mostly creative control. I've played in local bands like that, just kind of in my bedroom my whole life. This was my first chance to make a record that's all mine. And then about a week into the recording, this supposed investor came into play. There was a lot of talk, and we thought things were going to work out, so we booked a second week of sessions and I brought all the players back in to do everything live. And then the investor fell through, and I'm stuck with the session bill for all these guys. I'm glad it worked out the way it did because I got to make the record, but it was about 50/50 creative control, and that record cost, probably four times as much as "Metamodern" did to make. Just because if Pig [keyboard player Hargus Melvin "Pig" Robbins] and [former Waylon Jennings guitarist] Robby Turner got us in there, and we spend a little longer on it [which costs more]. But mostly, it took me 34, 35 years to make my first record, so I kinda knew that I had to do it my way and if it was something that I wasn't pleased with I couldn't blame anybody else. So that's most of it, really.

CTNow: It's not that you're at an advanced age to be doing this by any means, but it does seem like your success is coming at a slightly later age than you might think with pop success. Did you feel like you were more ready to deal with the attention than if you were, say, 21 or 22?

SS: Yeah, extremely. Well, two things I think: regardless of what kind of records I make, I guess people are going to always consider me a country singer, so I don't know that age is so much a factor in that world. If I were 21 and trying to sing a bunch of country songs I'm not really sure what the hell I'd be trying to talk or write about in the first place. But also, if it happened 10 or 15 years ago, I'd probably just die, you know. I'm in a much healthier personal place. And more focused, you know, it wasn't until about three or four years ago that I ever applied any actual effort or ambition to this. So none of this would've happened any other way. And now the most rewarding aspect of that has come later on, I'm married and with a kid so I can truly just focus on the music. And the rest of it's great, and flattering, but I almost feel too old and tired and jaded to really appreciate everything that's going on. So we just want to make great records. That's really it. Now that we've had the opportunity hopefully we can continue to go.

CTNow: Perhaps it's safe to say you entered more of a philosophical headspace from "High Top Mountain" to "Metamodern Sounds." There seems to be a shift in tone.

SS: I think they're both very traditional country records at their heart. There's definitely a shift in thematic elements. "High Top Mountain" is a very traditional record. I wanted to make a hard country record, sonically and thematically, so the songs were a little bit more bare bones, things that people are used to hearing talked about on a country song. And some socio-political things, you know, I was trying to tie in. And coal was obviously a big part of my childhood, and there's a coal song on the new record. Mostly, you know, I don't really drink much, I'm not banging out bags of drugs like I did 10 years ago, you know, I'm married, I live a pretty lame boring life for the most part, so I've been reading a lot of fun stuff and that reared its head. And my wife got tired of hearing me talk about it all, so I wrote some songs about it. And honestly, those songs probably felt more honest and inspired than anything I've ever done. So I figured I'd just kind of go with it. I wanted to make a psychedelic country album, and I sort of figured this would probably be the end of my career, so what does it matter, you know? ... Just sing about turtles and aliens.

CTNow: Well, and at the same time, it's sort of a psychedelic country record, but you made it in four days for $4,000.

SS: I think there are like seven channels total, but the rest of it was just Dave and I, everyone in the band really for our own amusement was just trying to play around using kind of outdated analog recording techniques. That was the challenge, and really the excitement of it.

CTNow: Toward the end there's definitely some looping, some almost electronic effects.

SS: That's the collaborative result of a bunch of music geeks being stuck in a room and nobody saying "You probably shouldn't do that."

CTNow: Which sounds like an ideal place to be for a little while.

SS: Heaven, in most circumstances. It's an ideal place to be.

CTNow: So you went from just the place that you're in in your life, you're not out doing the things that you might've done in your twenties, you moved into a little bit more of the life of the mind, in a way, for this album.

SS: Yeah. Well, I settled down for a couple of years. I knew I had a child on the way. I reached an age where I kind of looked back on a lot of wasted years and time. It's been interesting to just shut all that off. And to be honest I'm already thinking about the next record. We had so much fun writing the record and I got it through my system, and now I'm not really interested in most of that stuff anymore. We're about to sing this stuff every night, and I'm already thinking about the next one.

CTNow: Do you think you're going to try a similar approach, where it's mostly live in the studio, short periods of time, or do you think you want to do more of a studio immersion?

SS: I just found that I don't want to do the same thing twice. So it's hard to say. You come in with many blueprints and bullet-point plans of what kind of record you want to make, you can write that shit out all day, but you get in there, and you play the songs, once you start playing them: "Is it inspiring? Is this feeling right? Is this the right room?" There's a lot of elements. I just want to make records that have a cohesive unity to them, so it's hard to plan that shit, you know? You're just going to go in and see what you get, and if it ain't there then you wait, and try again later. I think for this band, the best thing we possibly can do is go right into the studio immediately after a three- or four-month tour. That's what we did with the last one, and the songs that you don't even know, you've never rehearsed, it comes together really quick with a fresh energy. I don't know, I did the traditional country record, and did my heavy existentialist hippie record, so it might be time to just lighten up.

CTNow: You're going to be playing some pretty good-sized venues supporting Zac Brown, some good-sounding sheds up and down the East Coast. Do you have to change your sound to fill these bigger spaces, or is it pretty much you do what you do, and they hear it the way they want to?

SS: I mean, we're a very bare-bones, stripped-down unit, just like a travel kit, small guitar and bass amps. I'm just playing acoustic. So it's very exposed, which leaves a lot of room for dynamics. We don't have to change the sound, as much as we have a deft set of 40 minutes. Opening for Zac, we're really just a warm-up. Maybe 10-12 percent of the people there even know who we are, or give a shit. But you just keep the energy up and get people's heads turning your way if you can. We're there to warm them up. They're not there to see us. It's a great opportunity. Hell, 10 or 12 percent of 20,000 people is… You can definitely see the like count on the Facebook page ticking away. I'm not sure what the measure of that is at this point, but people spread word of mouth, so hopefully they come back through in six months to Ardmore, Pa., or New Hampshire, when we play clubs, and those people actually come out on a Saturday night.

STURGILL SIMPSON performs at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Wednesday, Aug. 27. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $15-$18. Information: iheg.com.


Editor's note: This story has been edited from a previous version to remove an expletive.