If your understanding of country music is informed by what you hear on mainstream radio, you might be sold on the grand dumbing-down of a great American art form. Enter Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson and his much-anticipated sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Here, the singer's heart sits squarely in traditional country. But more than any country artist since fellow Kentuckian Dwight Yoakam, Simpson, a Breathitt County native who grew up in Versailles and once lived in Lexington, bends and recasts those traditions into music that is wholly his own without ever losing sight of the inspirations that fortified those sounds to begin with.
Take Voices, for instance. It's a coal-dusted mountain ballad of inner and outer dialogue entangled in continual chatter and conflict, but ultimately offering no solace. "A picture is worth 1,000 words," Simpson sings in a tone of dry, stoic reflection. "But a word ain't worth a dime."
More expansive, literally and figuratively, is the album-opening Turtles All the Way Down, which is introduced by Simpson's grandfather. The tune then bleeds into a treatise on better country living through hallucinogens as the music melts into serenely produced soundscapes that fall somewhere between the early-'70s records fashioned by famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill and music designed overseas at the same time by Pink Floyd.
Perhaps the most musically succinct instance when Simpson has his country tradition and eats it too is in the closing moments of Charlie Moore and Bill Napier's Long White Line (the first of two cover tunes that sit in the middle of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music). As the road anthem unwinds, Simpson reveals the phrasing (although not necessarily the temperament) of a mid-'70s Waylon Jennings. But as the blacktop fades into the distance, a stormy horizon awaits as the nimble country picking gives way to a corrosive guitar cloudburst.
Tradition sits behind every tune. In fact, the album's title is a play on Ray Charles' 1962 boundary-busting album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Sometimes, though, that tradition turns mighty dark.
On It Ain't All Flowers, Simpson dances with his demons in a county séance bookended by freight train processions of looped guitar and peppered by howling choruses and jagged guitar outbreaks. "It ain't all flowers," Simpson sings as this bit of country voodoo hits a boil. "Sometimes you gotta feel the thorns."
Not exactly the sort of sentiments you'll find in Nashville-promoted country radio and its pop-saturated songs about trucks, beer and beach parties. Then again, not all that can truly be considered country music is content to be stowed away next to the keg in the pickup.