What: An Evening with Sturgill Simpson
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
Tickets: $49 at the Royal McPherson box office, rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-6121
With a voice that sounds like pure country, but a complex sound that suggests otherwise, Sturgill Simpson finds himself in a unique position as an artist.
Simpson, 38, has a croon not unlike those of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or George Jones, which he employs in a way that seems anything but ancient.
He is a country singer’s country singer, adventurous enough to flirt with genres outside the Nashville realm, but also careful not to abandon his Kentucky roots. And he is reaping the rewards. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which arrived in April at No. 3 on the U.S. sales charts and No. 1 on the U.S country charts, has turned this once-ignored performer with a history of bucking the system into one of today’s most adored singer-songwriters.
“Some people will say, and have said, that I’m trying to run from country, but I’m never going to make anything other than a country record,” Simpson said during a rare interview with Rolling Stone. “As soon as I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song.”
There is much about Simpson that is misunderstood, which is partly his doing. He’s not doing press interviews during his colossal world tour that got underway May 16 in Lexington, Kentucky. Even when he has spoken to the press in the past, he appeared quietly content to let his music do the majority of the talking. He will likely stay quiet on that front until his 2016 run — which includes his Victoria debut Saturday at the Royal Theatre — wraps for the year on Nov. 19.
“I just have to do what it is going to make me happy, first and foremost — what is honest and what is sincere,” Simpson once told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Anybody that listens will hopefully connect with that.”
He moved with his wife to Nashville from Utah in 2010, after time working on the Union Pacific Railroad in Utah and a stint in Japan with the U.S. Navy. But despite the parallels in his music to the classic sounds from country music’s 1970s heyday, very little about modern-day Music City has a direct link to Simpson’s music. His early bluegrass roots have morphed into a textured wall of sound full of horns, strings and keyboards, and more than a few songs about drugs — hardly the material being churned out in the country-music capital today.
Perhaps that explains the initial lack of interest in his music. Simpson was forced to record and release his debut, 2013’s High Top Mountain, independently at first, but his followup, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, caught hold with fans. It earned him a Grammy Award nomination and a contract with Atlantic Records, through which he released the career-making A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
The album was written by Simpson (save for his stirring, horn-laced cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom) as a guidebook to life for his son, now two years old. On the album, Simpson lays bare the life of a professional musician, one that takes him away from his family for long stretches. And while some country songs being written today are rich with sentiment, Simpson tackles real life like few of his peers.
“And if some times daddy has to go away, please don’t think it means I don’t love you,” Simpson sings on the album’s opening song, Welcome To Earth (Pollywog). “Oh, how I wish I could be there every day, cause when I’m gone it makes me so sad and blue.”
Bucking the tradition of his first two recordings, Simpson also produced A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, his full spectrum as an artist coming into view. “Due to the personal nature of the album,I decided it was best not to collaborate with anyone,” he told Rolling Stone.
“I knew I wanted to make a concept record in song-cycle form, like my favourite Marvin Gaye records, where everything just continuously flows. I also wanted it to be something that when my son is older and maybe I’m gone, he can listen to it and get a sense of who I was.”
Gram Parsons used the term “cosmic American music” to describe the mellow brand of country rock he pioneered with the Flying Burrito Brothers during the early ’70s. Four decades later, Simpson, whose pitch-perfect tenor has earned him enduring comparisons with some of the greats, might very well be the latest link in that ongoing creative chain.
“I thought it was hilarious when Brace for Impact [a song on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth] was released and people said I had abandoned country, even though the song is dripping with pedal steel,” Simpson said. “If anything, that tells me I’m making progress.”