Upon first hearing, Sturgill Simpson’s music sounds like country music. Not the raucous party anthems that frequent the airwaves mind you, but rather the softer mellower, slide guitar oriented variety. To be clear, it is technically country music, I mean, Simpson is from Kentucky, and has the accent to show for it; the classification can be made upon that detail alone. Simpsons music is however, not without the influence of rock and jazz, evidenced by the heavy prominence of crushing riffs, and piercing horn parts.
The album is a joy to listen to. Possibly because it isn’t the sort of music that I’m usually exposed to. As a rule I generally avoid Country Music, but the pleasant variety and freshness of Simpson’s new album piqued my interest despite any preconceived notions.
“All Around You” opens with a joyful run down a gospel sounding keyboard leading into a slow 6/6 time horn intro. Like I said, not your typical country music. You won’t see this stuff at the CMAs, Simpson’s beef with them notwithstanding. Likewise, he rips a page out of Bob Dylan’s book in Sea Stories, with a simply strummed guitar and folksy rhythm, even down to the Bard’s penchant for vague but allegorically significant lyrics:
“They’ve got king cobras fighting in boxing rings
and the angels play connect four”
He throws his own twist into the mix with a mind-blowing guitar solo from bandmember Laur Joamets, who’s smooth playing leads directly into an excellent rendition of Nirvana’s In Bloom. Simpson and company deserve a huge amount of credit for the sheer ambition it takes to do a cover of a Nirvana song, nevermind (get it?) the fact that its actually really good. It exists as a sort of foil to the original. Cobain’s original comes in fast and loud, bombarding the ears with anger and angst, whilst Simpson’s interpretation, though sporting nearly identical lyrics, enters the air softly and introspectively; the sound pours softly into the ears, like nectar into a glass.
Simpson and his band were featured on Saturday Night Live, for the show’s January 14th episode. This is a tough venue to play. Not only is it a small stage, but it can be a tough crowd to perform to, especially when music like Simpson’s is not exactly mainstream. Many an act comes off as contrived, and inauthentic. Simpson and Co. however seem to thrive in this sort of environment, with an energy that radiates even through airwaves from 30 Rockefeller center all the way to one’s living room. I half laughed, half gasped in disbelieving amazement as pianist Bobby Emmett began — like a hayseed Elton John — rocking back and forth ON TOP of his keyboard. As the commercials rolled after the Riveting performance of “Call to Arms”. I exhaled deeply, both of a near exhaustion, and of relief. It is easy, in this day and age, to declare the demise of popular music, but Sturgill Simpson has proven, that to the contrary, it is very alive, and kicking.