Sturgill Simpson made his first appearance on Charlie Rose last week and opened up to the legendary journalist about songwriting inspiration, the state of country music and honoring music legends while they’re still living.
Simpson discussed his approach to songwriting, describing his lyrics as an exercise in honesty and “trying to represent the human experience from my perspective.”
When asked what goes into his distinct sound, which he describes as “dirt, grime and life sauce,” Simpson said he strives to make full-bodied music with “the wrinkles and the scars” in which listeners can immerse themselves.
Simpson also addressed his most recent record, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album about balancing living his dream with having to be away from his family during formative years. The singer-songwriter called the record “a heartfelt apology slash ‘thank you’ to my wife and son for letting me be the selfish artist.”
Rose asked Simpson about the hot button issue of the disconnect between mainstream pop country radio and traditional country music. Simpson said there’s room in country radio for the current trends as well as more traditionally rooted, lyrics driven country.
“I have no need to call out anyone personally or any of the individuals who make those records. I don’t know them and I’m sure they’re great people. What I’m saying about it is obviously there’s a large audience out there for the kind of records I’m making or a guy like Chris Stapleton is making or Jason Isbell is making. I have no problem with them selling the wares that they’ve been selling for 25, 30 years but there’s a lot of people who would really appreciate hearing the other stuff too,” Simpson said. “I think if I were running a label I would look for ways to sustain my business and look for artists that are trying to do something on a more human (level).”
Watch the full interview and performances of “All Around You” and “Oh Sarah” below:
Considering the news this week that Americana outsold country music for first time, the musical tides may be changing in favor of artists like Simpson and Isbell. At the very least, it’s a sign that Simpson is right. Audiences are hungry for more substantial lyrics than the ubiquitous odes to jacked-up trucks, pasture parties and cut-off jeans.
But there’s still work to be done when it comes to giving country legends radio play. Simpson addressed his now-infamous comments regarding the Academy of Country Music’s newly minted Merle Haggard Spirit Award. He criticized the award as a distasteful attempt to attach Haggard’s name to an industry that no longer supported his career.
“The Merle stuff was really more of an ongoing habit it seems where they co-op the names of these legends after they’re dead but they don’t really show them much support in the twilight of their career,” Simpson said, going on to reference Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, which were largely ignored by the Nashville industry.
Simpson said he hopes to encourage other artists who find themselves outside the mainstream music box.
“I’m not saying anything about mainstream music as much as I’m trying to speak to musicians and artists out there that are in the situation that I was in five years ago to let them know that there are other avenues,” Simpson said. “You can pursue these things and maybe end up short and frustrated or you can just do your best work and go out there and hit the road and put the work in. You might be surprised.”
You can catch Simpson on tour across the U.S. through the end of November.