On his fantastic new album A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson uses life at sea to inspire songs about separation from family and a longing for home. Simpson himself grew up in Kentucky and claims he joined the Navy on a whim when driving past a recruiting station.
After three years which included service in Japan and Southeast Asia, he left the service. "I wasn't very good at taking orders," he told Garden and Gun in 2014.
After he came home and started a music career, it turned out he wasn't very good at taking orders from Nashville, either. Simpson wasn't cut out for the kind of trucks-and-beer pop country that's dominated the charts over the last decade and made his name on independently-released albums. He had a breakthrough with 2014's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, produced by Dave Cobb (who's made a name for himself producing fellow Nashville rebels Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell).
Atlantic Records signed Simpson and gave him total freedom to make Sailor's Guide, which he produced himself. What he made is a compact album (39 minutes, just like the old days!) that combines '70s Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson with Stax Records-style horns, Al Green keyboard grooves and a Elvis in Memphis vibe.
On the track "Sea Stories," he talks about joining the Navy:
Basically it's just like papaw says:
"Keep your mouth shut and you'll be fine"
Just another enlisted egg
In the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater
When you get to Dam Neck
Hear a voice in your head
Saying, "my life's no longer mine"
He also includes a cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," where he adds a new lyric. After the line "You don't know what it means" (where there's a howling guitar squall on the original version), Simpson sings "to love someone," a line he says he imagined was there for years after he first heard the Nirvana version. Fans of the BeeGees (and the innumerable soul covers of the song) will appreciate the "To Love Someone" reference.
There's zero Autotune on the vocals, so this kind of gritty, soulful music may sound a bit weird to fans of Little Big Town or Florida-Georgia Line. None of the songs sound like truck commercials, so you're probably not going to hear this music on commercial country radio. If Chris Stapleton got your attention last year, though, Simpson's album is a logical next step into the world of traditional country.
The album's for sale in all the digital music stores, CDs are really cheap at Amazon and you can stream it on Spotify or Apple Music before you buy. Check out the first two videos from the album below.