For the Love of Sturgill Simpson, Country Rocker Ignored by Country Music

Sturgill Simpson performs onstage during the Boston Calling Music Festival (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Oxford American’s winter issue is dedicated to music, and Leesa Cross-Smith writes lovingly about her appreciation of Sturgill Simpson, who won a 2017 Grammy award for Best Country Album despite being largely ignored by country radio and the country music establishment (Simpson was not invited to the Country Music Association awards and spent the evening outside the event busking for donations for the ACLU).

I’m also a huge fan of Sturgill Simpson’s music and the way it seems to defy all genres while still maintaining a clear country sound. Cross-Smith describes it perfectly:

I liked him from the jump but got super-attached to Sturgill when I was editing and trying to sell my novel. That anxious in-between. I listened to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on repeat, absorbing it. First listen felt a bit like solving a complicated word problem. I couldn’t process it. It feels from another time—the seventies. It’s tense and dramatic one moment, the next, languid and dreamy. It’s awash with blue, a country concept album—earnest letters to his wife and son, sea-moonlighting as songs. He sings common-sense dad lines like “Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “Don’t let them try to upsell you, there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too.” He makes “stay in school, stay off of the drugs and keep it between the lines” sound fetching and profound when backed by his army of snap-punchy brass. He offers up his grunge-country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and changes the “don’t know what it means and I say yeah” lyric to “don’t know what it means to love someone.” According to an interview with the New York Times, he misremembered the lyrics and inadvertently changed them, literally adding extra love to the song. The second track, “Breakers Roar,” defies its title and is instead a placid prayerlike lullaby. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a pristine, indefectible album that’s hard to categorize, although Sturgill’s voice is clearly country, clearly Kentucky—as Kentucky as Chris Stapleton’s voice, as country as Loretta Lynn’s.

Feast your eyes on what many consider to be a musical-taste unicorn: me, a black woman who knows and loves country music.

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