Sturgill Simpson: "Sometimes I have to sit down and comprehend what's happened"

A press shot of Sturgill Simpson taken in 2016

Sturgill Simpson is one of Nashville’s biggest success stories of late. In the space of three years the 38-year-old has risen from independent singer-songwriter to major-label hot property, remapping the frontiers of country music with a visionary mix of outlaw twang, psychedelic R&B and rootsy soul. Not to mention, as on 2014’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, a pinch of cosmology. This year he peaked with the extraordinary album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide was kept from the top of the US chart only by two posthumous Prince reissues.

Seriously, if you’ve gotta lose to somebody it might as well be a cultural icon. Sometimes I have to sit down to really comprehend everything that’s happened to me over the last few years, no exaggeration. Nobody – especially me – expected Metamodern to become what it did and sort of kick-start my career.

Another big loss this year was bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley. How influential was he for you?

Huge. Bluegrass can be a very complex musical form, and my grandfather listened to so much of it when I was growing up that I rejected it for a while. When I got into my teenage years I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and things like that, but Ralph was the man. I can’t tell you how much he meant to me.

Had you wanted to make a conceptual R&B album like A Sailor’s Guide To Earth for some time?

I always knew that I wanted to get around to it, so it was just a case of processing the right variables and finding the time. I could already hear the sound I wanted in my head, so I had to produce it myself, which was scary at times. But I wouldn’t have felt comfortable compromising or being open to someone else’s input. I honestly don’t know if I could work with a producer again, unless it was those few on my dream-list – people like Daniel Lanois, Nigel Godrich or Tony Visconti. I’d love to hear what someone like Lanois would do with me and my band.

What lessons have you learned over the years?

I’ve learned how much I don’t know. Stop trying to control things you can’t. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When I was younger, just floating and drifting, I had a hard time with that. So you end up filling your time with a lot of things that maybe aren’t so good for you. But now the music is all I’m focused on. And my family. You just have to live for the moment.

Why I Love Country Music – by Wednesday 13

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.