I’d go out on a limb and say that, lately, country music has been as healthy and vibrant as it has been in years. Whether thanks to buzz-boosting late night TV appearances for up-and-coming artists, extra interest from music publications, or some of the most intriguing CMA and ACM winner lists…ever, country music seems to be worming its way more and more into the consciousness of music listeners everywhere. Fewer people are taking the “I listen to everything but country” stance; more are slowly dipping their toes into the genre’s considerable depths.
There are plenty of artists who have enjoyed the spoils of this growing wave, but based on how the coverage and buzz has gone so far, it’s difficult not to focus on three as the leaders of the “revolution.” Interestingly, each of the last three years has seen the breakout of one of these stars. In 2013, it was Jason Isbell, a career stalwart earning new levels of appreciation for his “sober record” Southeastern. In 2014, it was Sturgill Simpson, who sounds about as country as possible when he opens his mouth to sing, but who also subverted genre norms by singing about alien turtles and other bizarre eccentricities on his breakout LP, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Of course, 2015 belonged to Chris Stapleton, who teamed up with Justin Timberlake for a sure-to-go-down-in-history performance at the CMA Awards. That performance shot Stapleton into the public limelight and made his masterful debut, Traveller, the single best-selling country album of the last 18 months.
On one hand, this trio is an odd group of ringleaders, not only because they have all at some point or another declined the “savior of country music” title, but also because they don’t actually have that much in common from a musical standpoint. Isbell is an Americana storyteller, interested in digging into the nitty-gritty stories of America’s downtrodden—stories that aren’t always pretty, but which do always strike a chord. Stapleton is somewhere between a Nashville country traditionalist and a barnstormer of Memphis soul, with a barrel-chested roar of a voice that ranks as one of the most striking instruments in modern music. And Sturgill…well, Sturgill is a proud weirdo, probably capable of making the most authentic classic-country-sounding record of anyone currently living, but more interested in injecting the genre with radical ideas and bevies of different influences. Really, the only thing these three songwriters have in common is that their breakout albums were all produced by Dave Cobb.
Only time will tell if Cobb keeps his astounding track record alive and introduces country music to a fourth consecutive game-changer in 2016. For now, though, it’s pretty clear that all three of these guys have important spots in modern country music. Isbell is keeping the genre’s storytelling traditions alive; Stapleton is reminding listeners across every musical background that country music has value; and Sturgill is keeping country music on its toes by being the guy who will probably never again play by the rules.
Ever since people started lumping Isbell, Stapleton, and Simpson into some sort of powerhouse trio, I always thought that Sturgill was pretty clearly the weakest of the three. Isbell is the best songwriter of the bunch, while Stapleton is unequivocally the best singer. And while I liked Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds a good deal, it didn’t strike me as a masterpiece like Southeastern or Traveller did.
Now, though, with the arrival of Sturgill’s third full-length, called A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I’m ready to accept his place among the vanguard. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, in my eyes, is Sturgill’s first masterpiece, and proves clearly that, while Isbell might be the stronger songwriter and Stapleton might be the better vocalist, Simpson is clearly the most adventurous of the group. Indeed, Sailor’s Guide is a musically vibrant and eclectic album. Early on, some fans worried that Sturgill’s comments about not wanting to be country music’s savior might result in an album that wasn’t country at all. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is certainly a country record, and I’m not quite convinced that an album featuring such an overtly country-sounding singer could ever avoid deep and clear ties to the genre. But Sturgill Simpson’s third record is also not content to be just a country record. On the contrary, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth also features elements of classic rock, folk, jazz, blues, soul, and power pop. Hell, there’s even an element of classical music to this record, in the way it’s sequenced to play like one continuous track. I originally heard it as a symphony, but NPR was probably more accurate in labeling it a “song cycle.”
Sturgill isn’t the first artist to try to funnel a lot of different sounds and influences into a country music cocktail. The most recent wave of radio country artists has supplanted the “bro country” craze largely by adopting elements of soul and R&B. It’s one thing to try for a wide range of influences, though, and another to pull them off as something that is completely unique and not at all watered down. Sturgill achieves that balancing act throughout this 39-minute burst of a record, and the result is pretty easily one of the biggest musical accomplishments of the year so far.
Even though Simpson balances everything well, though, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is still an oddball of an LP. Much of the record is a tribute to Sturgill’s first son, hence the “guide to Earth” part of the title. The record even opens with the lines “Hello my son, welcome to Earth,” accompanied by a music box piano line, gentle acoustic strums, orchestral strings, and wisps of steel guitar. The song, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” sounds like a lullaby for half of its runtime. Then, suddenly, about two minutes and 45 seconds in, it transforms into a soulful rave-up, with Simpson singing “And if sometimes, daddy has to go away/Well please don’t think that it means that I don’t love you” over the arrival of an entire horn section.
Far from being just an album about fathers and sons, though, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is an ambitious and lyrically dense disc that—much like its first song—tends to transfigure itself just when you think you’re getting a handle on what’s going on. The album contains both the gentlest and hardest-hitting music Simpson has ever committed to tape. “Breakers Roar,” the album’s second track, actually is a lullaby, a serene song carried along by little more than strings, acoustic guitar, and pedal steel. Closer “Call to Arms,” meanwhile, is a blistering anti-war song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a classic Creedence Clearwater Revival record. Featuring what might be Sturgill’s most commanding vocal performance ever, “Call to Arms” is an explosive rockabilly epic. Fittingly, the song peaks with an accurate diagnosis of modern society’s woes. “Bullshit on the TV/Bullshit on the radio,” Sturgill sings, before proclaiming in a angry roar, “Bullshit’s got to go.”
Before he became one of country music’s brightest stars, Simpson spent three years in the Navy, so he’s not exactly anti-military. However, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth often does have political undertones, figuring questions of war and violence into the album’s broader musings on life, youth, manhood, existentialism, life goals, and mortality. And while many mainstream country albums include canned tributes to our troops, Sturgill’s songs certainly don’t portray his time in the Navy as something he’s proud of. It’s not difficult to see why Simpson might be disenchanted with the military. Living in a violent and fucked up world is hard enough as is, but bringing a child into that world is something that, I’d imagine, changes you forever. “Well son, I hope you don’t grow up/Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man” he sings on “Call to Arms.” An earlier cut, “Sea Stories,” covers similar subject matter, with Simpson describing his enlistment detail, singing about how joining the Navy turned him into “just another egg in Uncle Sam’s beater.”
The message is clear: don’t sign your life away on some misguided set of patriotic values. To quote a Jason Isbell song, don’t sacrifice yourself to go off and “fight somebody’s Hollywood war.” Live your life, chase your dreams, build a family, stay alive. Coming in the middle of an album that sees Sturgill repeatedly professing his love for his newborn son—or, as on “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” encouraging him to reach for the boundless possibility of life—that message hits hard.
Plenty of artists have written about the newfound joys of fatherhood and family, but I can’t recall an album that explored those questions with more nuance, detail, joy, and fear than this one. On A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, by pairing anecdotes from his own life with his hopes and dreams for his son, Sturgill asks the questions about parenthood that we all ponder but are too afraid to say out loud. Is it okay to have contempt for politicians and the military for sending our children off to die in droves? Is raising a son or daughter in a world so jolted by violence, death, hate, bigotry, and corruption a losing battle? Will our children have opportunities to enjoy the beauty and innocence that many of us enjoyed in our youth? Simpson even covers a song from when he was growing up—Nirvana’s “In Bloom”—to ponder the latter inquiry. These questions don’t have easy answers and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth wisely opts to leave them without concrete resolution. Sturgill and his family—and the rest of us and our families—will just have to roll the dice, take the risks, and figure out the answers as we go along. Still, even if A Sailor’s Guide to Earth offers more questions than answers, it remains a remarkable accomplishment for how those questions and their implications linger long after the record has stopped spinning.