On the first track of his latest record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, singer Sturgill Simpson name-checks alien lizards, psychedelic drug DMT, Buddha and cosmic turtles, all of which are crooned about over a classic country shuffle.
Simpson may be a country singer in title, but we’re a long way from Kenny Chesney here.
And really, thank Merle, Dolly, Hank and all the country gods for that. As dozens of cleverly edited YouTube videos and pithy think-pieces have attested, contemporary country music is stuck, having congealed into one identical-sounding mass of slickly produced slide guitars and pickup truck double-entendres. Recent attempts to “modernize” the sound with EDM or hip-hop touches (Cowboy Troy anyone?) have only pushed things further into desperation.
Sturgill’s Metamodern Sounds, as the name cleverly implies, finds rejuvenation in regression. Like Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell before him, the 35-year-old Kentucky native has reclaimed the much-beloved “classic country” sound, churning out Merle Haggard-style honky-tonk and George Jones-toned ballads with equal ease.
More than that, he’s tapped into its spirit, namely the give-a-fuck attitude of country’s outlaw wing. Tracks like “Living the Dream” recall the witty left-turn lyricism of Kris Kristofferson, all anchored with a soaring baritone that continues to draw the right kind of comparisons to Waylon Jennings.
Simpson’s most impressive trick, however, is his ability to bring any musical form into his countrified orbit, best seen in his transformation of cheese-ball ’80s hit “The Promise” into a Roy Orbison-worthy ballad. (He’s done the same with covers of Led Zeppelin, T. Rex and Otis Redding throughout this current tour as well.)
Simpson has called it a “social consciousness concept album disguised as a country record,” which helps explain its more universal appeal. But Simpson is country all the way down; he’s just found the right mix of alien abduction lyrics and Hank Williams influence to shake things up at last.
Nashville comedian Billy Wayne Davis opens for Sturgill Simpson 8:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 15, at McDonald Theatre; $22 adv., $24 door. All ages.