'I Wanna Make Art': Sturgill Simpson's Twisting Path To Nashville The mystic-minded songwriter spent years literally working on the railroad — and it's one reason he says he's no longer interested in making straight-ahead country music.
NPR logo

'I Wanna Make Art': Sturgill Simpson's Twisting Path To Nashville

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/315292234/315703183" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'I Wanna Make Art': Sturgill Simpson's Twisting Path To Nashville

'I Wanna Make Art': Sturgill Simpson's Twisting Path To Nashville

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/315292234/315703183" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You know that saying that if you play a country song backwards, your dog runs home, your wife comes back to you, and your truck starts running again? The musician Sturgill Simpson doesn't run away from the blue-collar travails found in traditional country music, but he does carve his own path towards more transcendental themes.


STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) I've seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire. I was standing there.

Met the devil in Seattle, spent nine months inside the lion's den.

MARTIN: I spoke with Sturgill Simpson recently about his new album, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." And I asked him what inspired his philosophical bent.

SIMPSON: It really stems from a lot of - a few things. One, I got - I'm very happily married, and I have a child on the way, and it's not...

MARTIN: Oh, congratulations.

SIMPSON: ...I'm not occupying a headspace anymore of where most country songs come from. So the thought of sitting down and having to barrel out another album of heartbroken drinking songs just wasn't something that I found tremendously inspiring. So I've been, you know - like everybody else at home at night, I read things. And certain things like metaphysics and cosmology that I've always just been really fascinated and interested in. And I decided to incorporate some of those things into the disguise of a traditional modern country record, I guess.


SIMPSON: (Singing) There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane.

Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open, pull out all your pain.

SIMPSON: Without saying one way or another that I do believe or don't believe in this or that or that I've found answers here or there, you know, really the record's just about love.

MARTIN: So point me to a track or point me to a lyric that you think...

SIMPSON: Well, "Turtles," for instance. There's a line, you know, marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT. They all change the way I see, but love's the only thing that ever saved my life.


SIMPSON: (Singing) Love's the only thing that ever saved my life.

MARTIN: I read somewhere that your wife also played a big role in your career in kind of giving you a push when you needed one. Is that true?

SIMPSON: Yeah, I've never been a very ambitious person.

MARTIN: Really?

SIMPSON: I've always played music. But you know, in eastern Kentucky, everybody plays music. So it's never something you ever think for a second growing up, oh, I can do this for a living. You know, it's what you do after work.

MARTIN: When did you meet your wife?

SIMPSON: My grandfather got really ill. I had to take a leave of absence from my job, and I came home to Kentucky to help my family out.

MARTIN: We should say, you are really close with your grandfather, too.

SIMPSON: Extremely close, yes. He recovered, and then I found myself just stuck back in this place that always, for whatever reason, I personally could just never flower very well in.

But I did meet my wife and realized, OK, this is someone I care very much about. And I want to make a living and take care of each other and we - and this is where things went really wrong. I screwed up really good and proper and took a management position.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SIMPSON: And now I'm in an office on conference calls getting screamed at by people I'll never meet.


SIMPSON: And I was probably just - that's the most depressed state I've ever been in my life. I think I put on like 35 pounds and as a result, starting pulling the guitar of the closet for the first time in about three years and really, really writing a lot. And she, thankfully, said, you know, you don't exactly suck at this, and you're going to wake up and be 40 and know that you never tried to do what you really love.

So we sold just about everything we owned except for this old Ford Bronco, and she and I and the dog drove to Nashville. And that was about four years ago.

And then she also had a big influence on this new record, as well, 'cause obviously, I don't leave the house a lot. So I bounce a lot of my nervous energy off of her. And I'd been reading a lot of pretty heady stuff and getting kind of obsessive about it, especially when we found out we were having a baby. I kind of went into what I will call my last great existentialistic dilemma.

MARTIN: And you thought, yeah...

SIMPSON: Yeah, and so my wife was like...

MARTIN: ...That's the perfect stuff for a country song.

SIMPSON: No, actually I can't take credit. She said, you know, you're maybe going to drive yourself crazy, but you're definitely driving me crazy, so maybe you should get this out of your system and go write some songs about it. And I thought, that's a great idea. So I did.

MARTIN: So let's play another song off the album. This is a track called "It Ain't All Flowers."


SIMPSON: (Singing) Been holding up the mirror to everything I don't want to see. But it ain't all flowers, sometimes you got to feel the thorn.

When you play with the devil, you know you're gonna get the horns. Ooh, ooh.

MARTIN: OK, so that's cool. That's like a great song. And then...

SIMPSON: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: ...It gets crazy. Like, something happens at the end, kind of sounds like something you might hear at the end of a Beatles record. Let's listen to a little bit of this.


MARTIN: So this is interesting for all kinds of reason. I like it because right at the beginning it becomes a funk song - like, all of a sudden, this different kind of rhythm that the song is infused with.


MARTIN: But - so, what's that about?

SIMPSON: Well, that's sort of...

MARTIN: Did you plan that out from the beginning?

SIMPSON: No. No. These were all happy mistakes and fine examples of making positives out of negatives. It's a highly introspective album, I guess I should say. I got pretty self-absorbed with it. And at the end, you know, I think when you're dealing with any issues about trying to become a better human being, you have to look at a lot of things about yourself that maybe you don't want to or aren't able to.

And I thought we needed a figurative hellish trip there at the end.


MARTIN: Clearly you're interested in finding your own path and doing things your own way, but I also read that you performed at the Grand Ole Opry, which is like old-school. That's a different thing.

SIMPSON: That's so old-school.

MARTIN: That's like real, traditional country, your roots. I imagine stuff you shared with your grandfather?

SIMPSON: He was actually there the first time I performed on the Opry, which probably meant more to me than the act performing on the Opry just because he and my grandmother both were born in the most extreme conditions of poverty in a coal camp, you know, back in the depression in eastern Kentucky.

So for them, the highlight of life was the entire coal camp on Saturday nights would gather around the one radio in camp and listen to the Opry. And we would gather around the one radio in the camp and listen to the Opry. And there's nothing else I could ever do or accomplish in their eyes that would be considered making it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And this next gentleman is a Kentucky boy, Jackson, Kentucky. I bet you everybody in Kentucky's listening to you tonight, Sturgill.

SIMPSON: So not only the fact they were alive to know about it, but the fact that they were there in the audience was pretty surreal.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sturgill Simpson, everybody. Get it, Sturgill.

SIMPSON: (Singing) Well, that label man said, son, now can't you sing a little bit more clear. He said, your voice might be too genuine and your song's a little too sincere. Can you sing a little more about outlaws and the way things used to be. He told me, you just worry about writing them songs and leave everything else to me.

SIMPSON: And even if this is the last record I ever make, I don't really feel like I have anything else left to prove to myself. I feel like I've met my own expectations.

MARTIN: Sturgill Simpson's new album is called "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." He joined us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for talking with us, Sturgill.

SIMPSON: Thank you very much. My honor.


SIMPSON: (Singing) She told me, boy, I don't care if you hit it big, 'cause you're already number one. That's the way it goes.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


SIMPSON: (Singing) You ain't gotta read between the lines, and you just gotta turn the page.

Well, the most outlaw thing that I've ever done was give a good woman a ring.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.