By Eleni P.Austin

Singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson isn’t a household name. But he should be. Simpson is thirtysomething Country singer whose sound recalls the Outlaw movement of the mid ‘70s. His authenticity is completely at odds with the backwards baseball cap wearin’ bro-tastic Homecoming Kings that currently dominate the Country charts.

John Sturgill Simpson was born and raised in Kentucky. His Mom was a secretary, his father a state policeman who sometimes worked undercover. Simpson spent summers in Eastern Kentucky with his maternal grandparents. It was a musical family and he picked up the guitar at age eight.

After a stint in the Navy, Simpson migrated out west. He formed a Bluegrass band, Sunday Valley in 2004. They enjoyed some regional success, playing at the Pickathon Festival in Portland, Oregon. Simpson detoured briefly from music. He worked for a while at a Union Pacific Railroad freight-shipping yard in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Realizing he wasn’t cut out for a 9 to 5 existence, Simpson returned to performing, playing solo gigs and local open mic nights. Sunday Valley reformed and recorded an album, but soon disbanded for good. Simpson and his wife relocated to Nashville, Tennessee.

Once he went solo in 2012, Simpson hooked up with producer, Dave Cobb. Like T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, Cobb pivots easily between the Rock, Folk and Country genres. He has provided deft production for disparate acts like Rival Sons, Shooter Jennings, Jason Isbell and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Simpson’s solo debut arrived in 2013. “High Top Mountain” was self-released and self-financed. The album echoed the rough-hewn style of Outlaw Country pioneered by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser back in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s.

The Outlaw movement was a counter-culture reaction to the syrupy, string-laden music that defined Country music during that era. Outlaw stripped the music down to the studs, taking inspiration from Country forefathers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, Sr.

Now Simpson is back with his sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and Boy, he ain’t kidding about the “meta” part either. Right out of the gate, the opening track, “Turtles (All The Way Down”), lightly dismisses the Bible and sheds light on the elusive Myth Of The Turtle.

According to Hindu cosmology, along with several American Indian tribes, the turtle is the “central divine source of all complex consciousness in the universe.”

Over a warm wash of acoustic and electric guitars, Simpson charts his quest for spirituality. He checks in with Jesus, the Devil (in Seattle), and Buddha, coming to this conclusion about the Bible… “Every time I take a look inside that old and fabled book, I’m blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky.” He is more persuaded by turtles, “So don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes or fairy tales of blood and wine, it’s turtles all the way down the line.

Three tracks, “Life Of Sin,” “Living The Dream” and “Voices” match erudite, introspective lyrics with crystalline melodies and crackling instrumentation.

“Life Of Sin”weds spitfire guitar licks to (Johnny Cash’s patented) “boom-chicka-boom” rhythms. A brutal break-up leaves Simpson seeking solace through chemicals… “The level of my medicating, some might find intimidating…” Ultimately, he realizes heartbreak has fueled his art. “She left my heart feeling taunted and my memories all haunted, but it’s her I have to thank for all my songs.”

“Living The Dream” finds Simpson ever-so-slightly kicking against the pricks, unwilling to change his style… “I don’t need to change my strings, the dirt don’t hurt the way I sing.” Here his soulful vocal delivery connects with sinewy electric guitar riffs and haunting organ runs.

Finally “Voices” speaks to our collective malaise. Over a slow burn melody, anchored by soaring guitars and a rock steady beat, Simpson reminds us that cynicism and chicanery have always been a human condition. “Don’t call it a sign of the times when it’s always been this way, voices behind curtains, forked tongues that have no name/They plot their wicked schemes setting fate for all mankind, with evil that can fill God’s pretty skies with clouds that burn and blind.”

Although Simpson is a protean songwriter, he includes a couple of interesting covers here. “Long White Line” is a Trucker’s lament from ‘90s Country star, Aaron Tippin. Simpson offers a stripped down version powered by stinging guitar chords and a walking bass line.

He radically re-works “The Promise,” a late ‘80s one-hit-wonder from British synth-poppers, When In Rome. The original was a lachrymose power ballad swathed in layers of keyboards, synths and click-tracks. Simpson’s arrangement is bare bones, sun-dappled acoustic guitar and subdued electric. His heartfelt vocals ache with sincerity.

Easily the most ambitious tracks here arrive in the form of a one-two punch. “Just Let Go” and “It Ain’t All Flowers” connect like a supernal suite.

On the former Simpson pursues the divine and the metaphysical in equal measure. Over brushed percussion, ethereal guitar and thrumming bass he makes this stunning admission… “Woke up this morning and decided to kill my ego, it ain’t never done me no good no how/Gonna break on through and blast off to the Bardo” (“Bardo” is a Tibetan word meaning intermediate state between death and rebirth).

Seguing into the latter track, it becomes apparent that “It Ain’t All Flowers” owes a sonic debt to the Beatles’ epochal “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Guitars and vocals are phased, looped and delayed, playing backwards and forwards. As the melody fully emerges, the guitars get gritty and swampy. Simpson takes personal inventory and comes up wanting…”Been dancing with demons all my life, every time I find my groove they cut me like a knife/Been a sin eater ever since I was born, tired of feeling weighed down from carrying around all the pain that keeps me torn” It’s a tour de force performance.

Confounding expectations yet again, the album closes with “Pan Bowl,” which actually cleaves to traditional Country – a bit of a back porch guitar pull, full of shimmering mandolins and bucolic acoustic guitar. The lyrics offer a tender tribute to idyllic childhood summers Simpson spent with his Grandparents. A satisfying finish to a mind blowing album.

This is a solo album in name only. Simpson relies on an adroit wolf pack of pickers and players to bring his musical vision to fruition. Laur Joametson electric and slide guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Miles Miller on drums and percussion, Mike Webb on Keys and Mellotron and producer Dave Cobb on Classical guitar and percussion.

Sturgill Simpson is the kind of guy who counts Radiohead, Beck and Tool as inspirations. He actually thanks Carl Sagan, Aldous Huxley and Stephen Hawking in the liner notes. It’s doubtful that he will ever conform to the narrow Nashville paradigm of cowboy boots and pick-up trucks. That’s okay, iconoclasts like Steve Earle John Prine, Greg Brown and Darrell Scott all seemed content to straddle the line between Country, Rock and Folk. Simpson is certainly in good company.