Bear with me folks… it’s been a while.
Last night, Sturgill Simpson took the stage at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville (pictured above courtesy of my phone) for the first show of a major headlining tour that is seeing most stops either sell out, be forced to bigger venues, or add extra shows. If that show was any indication of the rest of the tour, those of you who were lucky enough to get tickets for those upcoming dates are in for a treat.
A sold out crowd of 700 plus quickly turned into one of the most raucous crowds I’ve seen in Knoxville in some time as Simpson powered his way through his set without ever taking his foot off the throttle. By the time Simpson and his band kicked off the intro to “Living the Dream” fairly early in the set, it seemed as though the roof might just come off the joint.
For me, it felt like the culmination of a year that has been, for Sturgill Simpson, fairly astonishing.
The last time I saw Simpson perform a full set was at the 2013 Americana Music Conference in the back yard of a used record shop in East Nashville. A few dozen people hung out eating barbecue while Simpson and his band played on a makeshift stage under a makeshift tent in the corner of the lot.
Since then? Well… Simpson released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music early in 2014 and began what became a strong, steady ascent into the larger music consciousnesses.
Late night talk show appearances, glowing write-ups in national publications, sold out clubs, opening slots with major touring acts… These were all things on Simpson’s resume for 2014. Heck… he even got a Grammy nomination. The energy, it seems, has been building and building. And it was released in Knoxville by an artist ready to seize control of a theatre of this size for the first time as a headliner, and reabsorbed by an audience ready to receive the charge. It was a magical thing.
The news of Simpson’s signing with Atlantic Records was released a couple of weeks ago. I see it as the continuation of an artist’s ascension in the industry and recognition of his proficiency at his craft that also brings with it the opportunity to deliver his work to new, and even wider audiences.
Others may hear the words “major label” and immediately feel a sense of panic set in. They’re the ones who created this mess we call Country radio today, right?
Here’s why I’m not concerned:
1. The band I saw on that stage last night, and the man that was leading it, had a fire. It was strong… the kind that is not snuffed out or contained easily.
2. It’s been reported that Simpson has already been working on some new material with producer Dave Cobb. Cobb produced both of Simpson’s first two solo albums, and has a more than solid track record producing a long list of artists (Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega, Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings) in the independent Country realm. The fact that Cobb, and not some “hit maker” producer, is potentially involved in Simpsons’ future projects (in addition to another major label artist, Chris Stapelton) may signify good things for more than just Simpson.
3. Waylon did some of his best work with majors, right? I mean… he had to fight for it… but, still.
4. The thing I keep coming back to with Sturgill Simpson is a conversation I had with him right around the same time as that backyard BBQ show I mentioned earlier. The words “truth” and “honesty” came up a lot. Simpson struck me as a man grateful for the opportunity he had to make music, as well as a man respectful of the responsibility that opportunity carries with it. To Simpson, his songs represent him. They represent his family… his hometown… his beliefs and aspirations. He has too much respect for all of those things to make music that is anything less than honest on all of those fronts. To put it another way… as Simpson did during that conversation, “People will see right through bullshit.”
5. Reports are that Simpson’s deal with Atlantic carries complete creative control for the artist. I believe that. I don’t think he would have signed on otherwise.
Though he bristles at the suggestion, Sturgill Simpson may well be the savior of Country Music. Or he may not. We likely won’t know for some time. What we do know now is that every day Simpson’s music is being put in front of more and more people, and those people are latching on. An impending return engagement on Letterman, all the publicity connected with his Grammy nomination, and an announced appearance on Austin City Limits this Spring will only continue the work of beaming Simpson’s music directly into the ears of a Country Music audience that is starving to find even a scrap of authenticity outside the world of the underground.
To put it another way… Y’all keep playing dress-up and trying to sing them old Country songs. People are getting ready to see a lot more of Sturgill Simpson out there doing the real thing.
And they’ll know it’s the real thing. After all… “People will see right through bullshit.”