By Rick Bell
Apr. 20, 2016
Sturgill Simpson image courtesy of Atlantic Records
I know I’m late to the party but I recently jumped on the Sturgill Simpson bandwagon.
I don’t feel all that bad considering that Willie and Waylon didn’t enter my soundtrack until they were well into their Outlaw days of the mid-1970s. All I can say is, I jumped aboard with both boots, and the musical discoveries I’ve made along the way have made the ride well worth it.
So the Kentucky-born Simpson just released his third album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.” With a rumbling baritone reminiscent of Waylon and a classic country songwriter’s ability to turn a phrase, this is as fine a record as any I’ve heard in a long time.
NPR last week posted a Q&A with Simpson the day the new album was released, and he talks extensively about how his toddler-age son was a huge inspiration on his songwriting. It’s a wonderful, telling interview about the origins of this album, how he wanted “A Sailor’s Guide” to be a “pure and beautiful thing.”
There was one point in the interview that caught me, though. It’s a familiar riff with performers who contend their true artistic talent and vision seldom reveals itself in their music. This album was different, Simpson said in the interview. And it stopped me dead in my tracks.
“So with this one I had total — I don’t want to say control, nobody likes that word — but it’s what it was. I just didn’t want to collaborate with anyone. I didn’t wanna compromise. The record was so personal, I just didn’t see how anybody else could have been like, ‘Well what if we did this here?’ Because, in a lot of ways, I formulated the sound of it in my head, on the road, long before we ever went into a studio.”
Simpson wresting complete control, for lack of a better term, resulted in a truly amazing, inspiring record. But that singular vision can sometimes be a shipwreck, too, a myopic vision so narrow that few people get the same vibe.
Whether you’re a performer, entrepreneur, manager, what have you, there’s usually room for that second opinion, someone who can provide the perspective you might not have.
I’m reminded of Billy Sherrill, the producer of the legendary late country crooner George Jones, who pushed him to sing “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Jones’ career was flagging at that point — six years without a hit song. But Jones hated the song, saying it was too long, too sad, too depressing. “Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bitch,” Jones was quoted as saying.
Sherrill wouldn’t let up, the “Ol’ Possum” finally relented, recorded it and sure enough, Jones won a Grammy that year, the song won Song of the Year from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association and some three decades later is considered by some polls as the greatest country song of all time.
I relayed this to a friend who’s also a Sturgill Simpson fan and she came back with a slightly different take:
“Sort of like the imaginary “best boss/manager on earth” — as a producer, you need to know when to push an artist for their best work and when to stop micromanaging, take care of the technicalities, and let the artist take the wheel (like Sturgill did on this album). I think the product is amazing this time around!”
Good point. And I’m glad Simpson’s singular vision left room on the bandwagon for me.
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