Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth:” A Universal Heart

I have let Sturgill Simpson fall through the cracks these last few years. I’m not sure if I need to get out more, or if I get out too much. Do I have too much music or not enough?

When they announced the Grammy nominations for Album of The Year I was taken aback by his nomination, mostly for the pure fact that I did not know much about him. I have listened to Adele’s 25 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade and know each of these albums like the back of my hand. These records are some of the most innovative pieces of popular music we have today. So for Simpson to be ranked amongst these solid albums, I knew something had to be up. Little did I know he was the answer I had been looking for.

img_0334Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly aggravated and perturbed with modern country music. I am not a country music purist, but today’s country is anything but innovative or even remotely country in style. This new wave of “Bro Country” with the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line sickens me to my stomach. It’s not that I think these artists aren’t talented. I just believe they are leading country into oblivion and undermining its significance and meaning to our culture. Since having these revelations, I have naturally stopped buying many records that are deemed “Country.”

That could be a large reason why I overlooked Simpson, yet he is the exact opposite. I have always said that country is the “white man’s” soul. This isn’t a racist comment, I am simply speaking of the song stylings that have come out of each race. Both genres have themes that traverse the strands of race. Although, soul has taken leaps and bounds and continues to do so into new territory. Country has largely remained stagnant in recent years.

Simpson has taken country and pushed it forward with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The album flows like one continuous song while each composition retains its own identity. It’s a concept album, something we don’t see often in country music, and most importantly, its innovative.

One must understand the concept to understand the album. This is a letter to Simpson’s son that he wrote while on the road from the viewpoint of a sailor never knowing if he was going to come home.

This album opens with “Welcome to The Earth (Pollywog).” Simpson directly speaks to his son during a piano melody reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As the song progresses the classical piano stylings begin to intertwine themselves with a string section, and one of my favorite instruments, a steel guitar. The song then goes into a “breakdown” if you will. The song’s tempo speeds up while a soul and big band horn section begin to reconfigure this piece.

Wait, that was just track 1?

This style glides into the easy tones of “Breakers Roar”, before entering into “Keep It Between the Lines.” “Lines” takes on a new identity by turning country into retro-funk with the same kick ass horn section and steel guitar. This song is a father telling his son what mistakes not to make. “It don’t have to be like father like son,” Simpson sings.

Then we come to “Sea Stories.” These are the great stories our fathers and grandfathers tell us that we take for granted. This song has elements of modern rockabilly mixed into the mix of what I’ve already listed. In many ways, this song reminded me of my Grandpa and watching his old slides from when he was in Korea.

Oddly, Simpson then covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I was reading where he said this song made an impact on him during his younger teenage years and how he admired the message of how society’s preconceived notions of being a man aren’t always (if ever) correct. He takes this song and turns it on its head. Nirvana’s style is still distinct, but the song has a new outfit.

sturgill-simpson1_custom-1fc997fa740562b360de811454a0f507463b4e9b-s900-c85

Sturgill Simpson- NPR

Side two opens with “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” This was the lead single off the album. It is the album’s most commercial song, but it is in no way conventional. Next, the album turns to “All Around You.” The message this song sends is a message that transcends time. It reminds me of a prom from the 1950’s. It has a doo-wap style mixed with honky-tonk piano. Beyond the music though there is a simple fact. Underneath the pains of this world, there is a “universal heart” that beats in all of us. It is “All Around You.” This ode reminds me of the injustices that are still struck upon races, religions, and other’s ways of life. It made me think of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

The album closes with “Call to Arms.” This song is one of the most relevant songs I have heard when it comes to our generation. It is a snapshot of our world in 2017.  It talks about wars, bombs, egos, the survival of identity, and the countless distractions we experience every day, but don’t notice. This song defines us and serves as a wake-up call. As a society of immensely different people, with a universal heart built inside each of us, we cannot let the “bullshit” the big guys are shoving down our throats stand. This is 2017’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”

Throughout all the musical stylings though there is one thing that remains constant and it is the driving factor of why this album remains country. Simpson’s vocals are a conglomerate of some of the greatest country musicians including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Dwight Yoakam. He is a less raspy Chris Stapleton and creates a distinct path through his vocal stylings. They’re real and heartfelt. They speak truth. They are country.

This album is quickly making its impact on my life and is becoming one of my favorites. It’s an album that has frozen a moment of my life I will be able to revisit every time I hear the shores roar. Sturgill Simpson is exactly what country music needs, but in larger respect, his innovative musical stylings is what a lot of modern-day music is lacking. Art must keep forming and changing. Art has a responsibility to reflect its time and often the time’s injustices. It’s our responsibility to teach the next generation where to go and what not to attempt.

Although this album is directed straight to Simpson’s son, its messages capture society. He shows through the album’s stylings that not only do humans have a universal heart, but music does as well. This is essential to remember for music defines generations.

 

These are The Things I Lean On: A Musical Journey

I have loved music for a very long time now. As I have grown older, I am able to look back on music and artists and pinpoint exactly how they have impacted my life. Some of these impacts are very profound. I wrote an article over Reba McEntire and what she meant to my mom and me. She made an impact on our relationship through one of our families’ hardest times. You can read that story here.

wynonnajuddWell there must be something about country music superstars with red hair. Their art seems to consistently hold a special place in my heart.

To begin this story, I must preface it with a simple fact. I have listened to a lot of music in my 26 years on earth. I literally have 100’s of favorite songs and many favorite albums. I once heard that If you can pick out one favorite song and one favorite album, you must really have your life together. I’m far from complete.

Although I cannot choose my favorite song, I can tell you which song was my first favorite. That song was “Tell Me Why” by Wynonna Judd in 1993. It is close to being my first memory. I literally sang this song in my car seat.

fullsizerender-3

Happy days at Grandma and Grandpas.

My dad was a country music DJ and my mom was a teacher. Life was perfect. I loved both my parents with all my heart and felt lucky to have this family. My dad brought home a promotional poster the radio station had received in the mail of Wynonna. This was also the very first time my mom had to deal with what has now been my numerous musical binges.

Then in two short years, my parents filed for divorce. My dad moved out. My mom cried. I attempted to put together parts of a heart that had not even formed.

As time progressed, my relationship with my dad became strained. A bridge of healing has now been built-in its place, but there will always be hurt. Love built that bridge. There were many years where we went without seeing each other but once or twice a year. It was a complicated time, but one I am glad to say I have now taken ownership of in my life.

Every time I would talk to my dad, I always took an interest in his career. It’s still a dream of mine to work in the music industry and he was the closest person I knew! I don’t remember a lot from these conversations. We often didn’t have much to talk about and I tended to default to music. My dad and I did not always have the same musical taste, but we always had one favorite artist in common: Wynonna and The Judds  When we talked music, everything was at peace.

One day my dad told me about a radio conference in Nashville with many other stations and musical artists. It was professional environment, so it was not polite or proper to ask for pictures or autographs.

img_7479As the story goes, he found himself in a room with Wynonna. He told her I was a big fan and he showed Wynonna a picture of me from his wallet. She then turned to a staff member and asked if they had a picture and a piece of paper she could write on. Ms. Judd took it upon herself to sign a picture for me and wrote a small note. To say I was excited would be an understatement.

Of course this made me an even bigger fan. I asked my dad if I could write her back, because I was convinced he had all her personal contact information.

Fast forward to when I was 11. I was in the seventh grade and my relationship with my dad had not strengthened at all. During this year my grandpa, his father, was diagnosed with cancer and the prognosis was terminal.

My dad took me up to northeast Oklahoma to spend time with my Grandpa and to tell him goodbye. I didn’t understand the severity of the situation and I was convinced that if I prayed enough Grandpa would heal. Prayer does heal, but when the Lord decides He wants one of our loved ones to be with Him we have to accept His choice.

41pwtcpmzvlOn the way up the turnpike, I had brought along a few CD’s with me to listen to in the car. One of these CD’s was Wynonna’s A New Day Dawning. I love this album. We listened to the entire album, and our favorite song was “Tuff Enough.” I still remember watching the Oklahoma countryside and listening to this album.

Throughout the following years, I continued to collect all of Wynonna’s recordings. I still remember buying What the World Needs Now from the local K-Mart. Are those still open?

In 2012 Wynonna had a concert booked in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I immediately called my mom and told her we were going. This concert was right before Wynonna and Cactus Moser got married. My mom and I had an absolute blast. We had great floor seats and beyond Wynonna’s near perfect live vocals, we were rolling on the floor in laughter. A person in the crowd heckled Wynonna about going and toilet papering Garth Brooks’ home. He lived in Owasso, OK, at that time, which is around the corner from Tulsa. Wynonna had a difficult time pronouncing “O-Wa-So,” but she assured us “Wy-No-Na” understood. My mom and I still talk about this concert today.

Two years later, Wynonna was making another stop in Oklahoma. This time she was in Shawnee, which was just around 45 minutes from where I lived. I followed Wynonna on every social media site and knew they were doing Wynonna trivia contests to win meet and greet passes. Well I got the answer correct and I exclaimed in the middle of work “Boom, guess who is going to meet Wynonna?”

fullsizerender-2After all these years, I couldn’t believe I was going to meet Wynonna. What was I going to say? This became an issue, but amidst my anxiety the day came. All of us who had meet and greet passes gathered in a tent beside the stage (the concert was outdoors). Then Wynonna walked around the corner. I had always thought Wynonna was pretty, but pictures don’t do her justice! She had a larger than life personality and image. Wynonna friggin’ Judd was in the room.

I waited patiently and I finally had my turn. Anybody who has been in a meet and greet line knows how quickly they flow. You maybe get 10 seconds to say what you want, get a picture, and move on. To be completely honest with you, I don’t remember the exact moment I spoke to her. I just told her I had been a lifelong fan and in her usual wit she asked, “Well how old are you now?” I told her I was 24 (at that time), and she just said “Oh Lord” or something along those lines.

I met Wynonna Judd. Lets end this anecdote here, because words don’t adequately express meeting a musician that has impacted your life through their music in such a profound way. To say I was star struck would be an understatement. Looking back, I wish I had just told her thank you.

fullsizerenderFast forward a few more years and Wynonna was again returning to Oklahoma. She was coming to Hinton, which also happened to be around an hour away from me. So I was going to buy tickets, that was a no brainer. Now by this time I had come across many of The Judd’s vinyl albums. My favorite cover is Rockin’ With The Rhythm. I remembered Wynonna often signed things people would bring to her on the stage. Now I wanted a record signed. Right during the break of a song, I ran to the stage and handed her the album. She looked at me, smiled, and signed my record.

I am now a Wynonna concert veteran, but I must warn you, when you see her live she will ruin other concerts. I have been to many shows and I have never seen anybody connect with their audience like her. She talks to people in the crowd directly. She cracks jokes with the crowd. She tells stories from her life and career. She plays the drums. She is a true performer. I call this the Wynonna effect, because nobody can quite connect to an audience like Wynonna. If you have a chance to see her, do it!! If she is within an hour of you, go and go every time! Each time she is spectacular and you’ll never see the same concert twice.

img_1341

My ever growing Wynonna and The Judds vinyl collection.

Now we arrive at the beginning of 2017. I’m still a vigilant fan and have written about her many times. Today, as I have come to learn Wynonna’s story, I have also found inspiration through her strength and perseverance through her life. She reminds me of my mom, which in my world, is the highest honor I can give anyone.

Oddly enough, throughout all my years of listening to Wynonna, my most profound experience with her music was in 2016. Earlier in the post, I mentioned that my parents divorced. My world was in shambles and my little mind could not make sense of the situation, but there were always two constant people in my life. They stood like stone pillars. I call them Grandma and Grandpa.

Last May one of those pillars took a new heavenly form and went to live with the Lord, my Grandpa. He was 88 years old and lived an amazing life. My family had recently moved him and my Grandma to a nursing home for rehab. Grandpa had just suffered a medium rate stroke and a minor heart attack. He needed a little extra care to get him back where he could live in assisted living again. The nursing home was going to be temporary.

13131669_10206162258042299_8352262274911169713_o

Grandpa and I.

Shortly after, my Grandpa became sick once more and he had to go to the hospital. This time they told us he wasn’t going to make it much longer and they called in hospice. He was placed on a ventilator and I rushed to the hospital. I sat and held his hand. As I looked him in the eyes I began to sing…”Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good ol’days.”

I didn’t know all the words to the song and I googled them. Every verse fit him. That song remained in my head all day. As they were making plans to send him back to the nursing home, I went to my house, which was about an hour away, to get some clothes and things to stay with Grandpa through his final days. God had different plans and within those two hours Grandpa met Jesus.

My mom then went home to southern Oklahoma to begin planning the funeral. I went home a few days later to be her support. We went to the funeral home and we were going to have a picture video made of Grandpa. There was a full section over just his grandkids. The funeral home asked us what song we wanted to play. I told my mom that we had to play The Judds’ song, “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)” and we did. I now think about him every time I hear that song and it has become another one of my favorites.

Music is more than just art. Artists are more than just talent. When you become a fan of a particular artist, they become a companion to you. The records are there for you through thick and thin and are always ready for a spin.

As these artists become your companion, they begin to hold a special place in your heart. Wynonna and her music has been there for me my entire life. Her songs remind me of the happiest moments in my life and they provide comfort for me at my lows.

15799884_10207966773034046_7234734989831879843_o

Grandma in 1947.

Today, not even a year after my Grandpa’s passing, I moved to New York to pursue a job opportunity. I miss my Grandma terribly and wish I could be with her, but I know she wants me to pursue what makes me happy. She has stood as solid as ever through Grandpa’s passing. She struggles, but I have never seen strength portrayed the way my Grandma has these past 6 months. She is truly the most beautiful person I know.

And remember when I said there was just something about red heads I liked. My grandma has red hair.

Thank you, Wy, for everything. I’ll catch you on the next tweet.