When asked what music they like to listen to, a staggering percentage of people answer: “I listen to everything…except for rap and country.” Or, at least they did back when I used to ask that question, thinking everyone felt as strongly about music as I did. I wondered why so many people are turned off by rap and country?
The term “country music” seems to implant stereotypical images. When people hear that term, they picture a: plaid-shirted, belt-buckled, cowboy-hatted, cheap beer swilling, and acoustic guitar-playing dude with a thick drawl singing about his sad dog, his sad love life, or his sad tractor. That’s not my kind of scene either, but Sturgill Simpson is, by his own admission, a “Country Artist”.
He certainly doesn’t fit the above description.
“A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” is the third full-length album by the Kentucky singer-songwriter. As much notoriety as he’s received for his take on Country and “Roots Rock” up to this point, this album spreads the sound even wider. First of all, A Sailor’s Guide is essentially a concept album. It’s literally a guide for life written to his young son; a bunch of advice-type songs riddled with meaning, morals, and lines like:
“Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done/
It don’t have to be like a father, like his son.”
The personal nature of this album could pretty quickly fall into the territory of being cheesy, but Simpson avoids that fate the same way J. Tillman did with 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. He means it and that comes across in the songwriting. Simpson continually pulls in seafaring metaphors, especially as they relate to the military. “Sea Stories” and “Call to Arms” make heavy use of the Navy a “manly” pursuit. The military is not the kind of path Simpson wants his son to think he has to take to prove himself. In “Breakers Roar” and “All Around You”, the sea is a stand-in for the fears of isolation, loneliness, and desperation; all fears which Simpson tenderly attempts to quell.
Musically, the album melts together in a way that calls to mind prog-rock albums and gives the album a flowing cohesiveness. Here, Simpson’s brand of country-soul is more pronounced than ever before. Of course, the bright steel guitar still makes an appearance on just about every song, but there are also sweeping string arrangements and horn sections. The opening track, “Welcome to Earth”, is driven by a smooth piano and strings, but then explodes into a 60’s soul groove that will not let go. “Keep It Between The Lines”, the most straightforward song on the album, has a killer 1970’s Southern Rock vibe courtesy of the brilliant Dap-Kings. The track has five fantastic solos in 4 minutes of run-time. The album’s lead single, “Brace for Impact”, finds Simpson delivering a carpe diem-type message over a driving beat before the track descends into a spacey, but groovy, synth-heavy blues outro.
Essentially, Simpson is like a third Blues Brother. The only difference is that he would’ve been totally at home in the country biker bar scene. He’s got that Blues & Soul sensibility in his writing. There are songs like “Sea Stories”, when the album doesn’t work as well, like pulling out the ice and bitters and leaving us with a glass full of straight Kentucky Bourbon. It’s a little abrasive if you’re not ready for it. However, the album’s flow keeps you from skipping around. Not to mention, “Sea Stories” is followed by a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”! Simpson brightens and injects some of his pained drawl into this beautiful cover song. It’s a highlight of the album and just when you think it can’t get any better, the Chicago-style horns come in and make you seriously wonder if you like this version more than the original. I bet you do.
There are a lot of spectacular moments on this album. As a whole, it’s a real success. The few less spectacular moments are overshadowed by Simpson’s sincerity and his talent for creating sounds that transcend the simple label of “country music”. It’s hard to put together an album this personal and still make it accessible and easy to relate to. The experiences Simpson writes about in this album, positive or negative, are ones most of us have had…or can take something from. A Sailor’s Guide isn’t just a guide for Simpson’s son, it’s a guide for all sailors…whether you like “country music” or not.
You can purchase “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” at: http://www.sturgillsimpson.com/music