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Sturgill Simpson rides the success of his existential approach to country music

Sturgill Simpson will perform Tuesday, July 14, at Crossroads KC.
Sturgill Simpson will perform Tuesday, July 14, at Crossroads KC. Reto Sterchi

When he released his debut album, “High Top Mountain,” in June 2013, Sturgill Simpson thought that might be it.

“When I made both my records, I didn’t know whether I’d be making another one afterward,” he told The Star recently.

He can put those notions aside. He did make another and has at least two more on the way, a sign that there’s an audience for his unconventional take on country music.

Simpson, 37, a native of Kentucky, released “Mountain” on his own label, High Mountain Records. It was produced by Dave Cobb and recorded with session musicians for about $25,000. The critical response was positive, but sales were light.

Undeterred, Simpson recorded another almost right away: “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” released in May 2014. The title pays tribute to his favorite Ray Charles album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.”

Simpson and Cobb spent four days recording “Metamodern” with Simpson’s band. The tab was about $4,000. And this time the reaction was different.

“Mountain” is a traditional hard-country album that introduced the music world to Simpson’s resonating voice, which bears a close resemblance to ’70s-era Waylon Jennings.

“Metamodern,” however, came from another place — another plane, really. From the Paste magazine review: “This time around the songs owe as much to Carl Sagan as they do Merle Haggard, most notably on the almost seven-minute ‘It Ain’t All Flowers,’ which takes ’70s outlaw country on a sizzling acid trip.”

The album’s single, “Turtles All the Way Down,” a song about the glory of love, mentions Jesus, Buddha, Satan and “reptile aliens made of light.” It also mentions drug use: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT / They all changed the way I see / But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

The songs about drugs and enlightenment have attracted lots of attention.

“Honestly, I didn’t have to deal with much of a reaction to that,” Simpson said. “Most of the reactions came from sensational journalists or people trying to make something out of nothing, people who got hung up on things that weren’t really the point. I didn’t see what the big deal was. It was not what some people made it out to be.

“It would have been a lot different if I walked around barefoot, handling snakes and eating LSD. But that’s not the case. I think about that stuff about as much as I think about bro’ country.”

Whether it was the existential lyrics or the cosmic arrangements or his voice, the album Simpson thought he might never make has been a success.

“Metamodern” received a Grammy nomination for best Americana album, a sign that some don’t think it fits into country music. Sales exceeded 100,000 copies. He has appeared on a few late-night talk shows.

He also has graduated to larger venues, including Crossroads KC, capacity 2,000, where he will perform Tuesday night. His debut Kansas City show was in December at Knuckleheads, where he drew a sold-out crowd of more than 300.

Success has changed his routine dramatically in many ways, he said, taking time away from hobbies and habits, like reading.

In the liner notes to “Metamodern,” Simpson mentions Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and Rick Strassman (“DMT: The Spirit Molecule”) as lyrical inspirations. In other interviews, he has cited essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and “The Phenomenon of Man” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Things are different these days.

“Man, I don’t have time to read anything anymore,” said Simpson, who is married and the father of a young child. “And when I’m at home, I spend my free time with my son. And when I lay down to sleep, there’s not a lot of energy for reading these days.”

So where does the inspiration come from?

“Well, the same things. Whatever I’m really into at the time or moved by or drawing from,” he said. “I don’t write a lot, and I don’t know if I consider myself a serious writer. I’m not very prolific.

“I write on the road a lot, (and) when I’m in the shower at home. Voice memos are the greatest thing ever. You don’t have to mess with a pen or piece of paper. You just get out the melody or a good line and then three months later, it’s, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Music, too, provides inspiration, he said.

“I’ve been wearing out that ‘Run the Jewels’ album and listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye, but I don’t have a lot of time for it anymore, either,” he said. “I bought a drum set and a synthesizer and have them set up in the dining room. If I have some time to meditate, I’ll go in there and kind of jam around a little bit, try to work outside the box. That has been more fun than anything.”

In January, Simpson signed a deal with Atlantic Records, to whom he is obligated to make at least two records. He is already working on the next album. Last year, Cobb told Rolling Stone Country: “We’re already doing something totally different, and it will probably make a lot of people mad. It’s already crazy.”

Simpson was less revealing. “We’ve got a lot of new stuff, but we’re keeping things close to the vest,” he said. “We won’t be playing them out live until the album is ready. With YouTube and all that people get tied to old versions that aren’t necessarily the original versions.”

More albums mean more touring, which means more time away from home. Success is bittersweet.

“It can be tough not to feel selfish when you’ve been away and you see how much you’ve missed,” he said. “First World problem, I know. I’m grateful for everything but I’d like to see my wife and son more.

“I focus energy in a lot of other places. At this point I can pay the band a respectable salary and put food on the table. And we seem to be making people happy. I’m really grateful to play for people who are singing along to our songs. It probably won’t last forever or for very long.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

TUESDAY

Sturgill Simpson performs Tuesday at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St. Cody Jinks opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 at crossroadskc.com.

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