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God, Drugs And Lizard Aliens: Yep, It's Country Music

Sturgill Simpson's second album, <em>Metamodern Sounds In Country Music</em>, takes inspiration from both Ray Charles and research into near-death experiences.
Courtesy of the artist
Sturgill Simpson's second album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, takes inspiration from both Ray Charles and research into near-death experiences.

Believe it or not: a country song can be about anything. People who seek out stories about Daddy's farm and fishing trips and Solo cups will easily find them, but the genre's most creative souls have long been interested in much more than sentimentality and a good old American time. Country and the rock that intertwines with it bears a rich legacy of artists asking The Big Questions in warm, relatable accents, from Willie Nelson and his friends at the World Armadillo Headquarters in the 1970s to the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell today.

Sturgill Simpson is the latest to take on this challenge. The 35-year-old native Kentuckian, who played in the insurgent bluegrass band Sunday Valley before releasing last year's High Top Mountain, a dynamic (and fairly traditional hard country) solo album, didn't set out to blow minds with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, to be released May 13. He just found himself in a new place, both musically and in terms of his fascinations.

That personal paradigm shift is represented in the album's first track, "Turtles All The Way Down," the video for which debuts here. "There's a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane," Simpsons sings in his outlaw baritone as his band lays down a gentle arrangement reminiscent of Merle Haggard's "Kern River".

The next lyric might make you jump: "Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain." Aliens? Simpson's having fun with a cosmic-scientific meme connected to an old myth that imagines the world perched upon an infinite stack of the green-shelled creatures. Simpson invokes the Turtle in connection to his own quest for meaning, which never does let up. The song's video, created using software artist 's distributed computing project , similarly blends a straightforward, intimate performance with synapse-stimulating, AI-generated effects.

After this detonation of the treasure chest of country stereotypes, Metamodern Soundscontinues to flesh out a deep and unconventional relationship between traditionalism and new ways of thinking. The groove Simpson finds with his band is loose and immediate. At times the playing gets almost psychedelic. At other times players circle back on old styles like Southern gospel and do them right. At the center of it all is Simpson, a hot guitar player and mighty singer whose insistence on being complicated makes Metamodern Sounds far richer than most emerging artists' wrestling matches with tradition.

Simpson and I recently had a conversation via email about legacies worth resurrecting and making music that's "like life."

The new album isn't exactly what people might have expected from a guy often called a honky-tonker — though those classic elements are present, too. Where did you begin with these songs?

I just reached a point where the thought of writing and singing any more songs about heartache and drinking made me feel incredibly bored with music. It's just not a headspace I occupy much these days. Nighttime reading about theology, cosmology, and breakthroughs in modern physics and their relationship to a few personal experiences I've had led to most of the songs on the album.

Dr. Rick Strassman's book The Spirit Molecule was extremely inspirational,as were a few recent highly visionary indie films and a lot of Terrence McKenna's audio lectures. The influences are all over the place but they culminated into a group of songs about love and the human experience, centered around the light and darkness within us all. There have been many socially conscious concept albums. I wanted to make a "social consciousness" concept album disguised as a country record.

"Turtles All the Way Down," is a shot across the barricades. And you've made a video that matches it. Tell me about how the video came about and how it relates to the song. Do you think will play it?

I expected to be labeled the "acid country guy," but it's not something I dwell on. I would urge anyone that gets hung up on the song being about drugs to give another listen ... to me "Turtles" is about giving your heart to love and treating everyone with compassion and respect no matter what you do or don't believe. The cosmic turtle is from a much quoted story found in publications throughout modern physics and philosophy, even ancient theology, that now essentially serves as a comedic picture or expression of a much grander idea.

The video is a tightly budgeted attempt to capture or represent a visual simulation of that idea. After some correspondence with Dr. Strassman and Andrew Stone at I was introduced to visionary software artist Scott Draves, creator of Electric Sheep. After a few emails and hearing the music, Scott was generous enough to offer his assistance with the project. A friend of mine, Dex Palmer, knew some pretty tech-savvy kids at Cineshot Productions that I enlisted for the chore of filming and editing this thing.

As for CMT playing the video, I honestly never gave it too much thought. What they do is great to a lot of people, and it creates jobs for a lot of people, but mainstream country avenues weren't really a goal for me with this album. I'm interested in exploring various forms of newer media that might allow those who otherwise don't listen to country to find and connect with my music.

The song's title invokes Ray Charles's classic album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music — which was a huge, loving and very successful challenge to the genre. This album poses challenges too, and not just the obvious ones. It's not slick like mainstream country, but it also has a more adventurous and looser spirit than a lot of Americana music. How do you think these categories need shaking up right now?

Part of me still feels like I've never had the opportunity to properly express all my earliest influences, so for now I find isolation to be my biggest influence. Somebody told me once it takes an Americana song five minutes to say what a country song says in three — so I try to write country songs. But really, all good music is just soul music.

You're working with a traditional sound but your music still has a roughness and immediacy to it that's very vital. How do you protect that?

I want to make records that feel like life. So in terms of recording, I am very much a live performer and I've learned to treat the studio as an extension of that only with a much broader sonic palette to paint with. I cant even use headphones. We just set up extremely tight in one room and set the levels ourselves naturally with dynamics. This is how all my favorite records were made.

You cover of a song called "The Promise" on the new album and it sounds like a classic country weeper. I thought it was a Mavericks song when I heard your version. But it's a 1988 electropop hit by the English band When in Rome! Tell me about taking a song that's so different stylistically and finding the country in it.

I believe it's one of about three thousand brilliant compositions from the 80's that got lost in production. I always thought the lyrics to "The Promise" made for a very beautiful, sweet love song and decided I'd like to lay down a somewhat "Countrypolitan" version.

You also have a trucking song on the album: "Long White Lines," written by Buford Abner but better known from a version by '90s country star Aaron Tippin. Mainstream country is full of trucks, but never mentions trucking — trucks in songs today represent leisure, not work. You turn that around here.

CB radios were a big part of the early 80's. They sort of became an obsession after Smokey and the Bandit. My grandfather had one in his truck when I was a kid and I would play on it constantly, in the garage or going down the road, until truckers started telling dirty jokes and he'd make me turn it off. Since the album is a figurative trip, I figured it needed a road song. I became familiar with the tune years ago on an old Charlie Moore & Bill Napier bluegrass trucker album by the same title. We started working it up on the road last year and it just keeps getting looser and funkier every time we play it. At this point it's basically hip-hop.

There's nothing more traditional in country than invoking family, but nostalgic songs about childhood can be so very corny. You have one on this album, "Pan Bowl," that avoids cliché by employing what seems like real details from your life. And you grandfather "Dood" Fraley announces the title of the album at its very beginning. How do you manage to invoke family without getting too sentimental?

Yeah, I wrote that song a few years back and honestly it probably doesn't belong on this album. I just felt that by the end of the record most folks might need some sort of "return to innocence," so I added it as a hidden bonus track. Every word of that song is true. As for the album intro, really I just wanted my grandfather to emcee the album, almost entirely for sentimental reasons, and I thought it made for a nice juxtaposition.

There are points with the band where you almost get into jam-band territory on this album. Is this a reflection of where you're going live? It's a different kind of stretching out than what you did with your old band Sunday Valley.

There is still so much room for sonic exploration in country music. You always have to serve the songs and the songs have to serve the records. Someday, if I ever get to a point where I find that I am repeating myself, that's when I'll know I'm done.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.