An interview with Sturgill Simpson published in this week’s Nashville Scene provides an illuminating look at the singer’s rise to stardom outside the Nashville country music industry, and his push to succeed without their help.
In roughly three years, Simpson has achieved international recognition for his music among country and non-country fans alike, all without ever having a song played on mainstream country radio or appearing on the award shows. He consistently sells out theaters, and has sold more than half a million records. How?
“If you pour your heart out and you’re honest with yourself and your human experience and your life, and you put that into music, you don’t have to be talented,” Simpson said. “People will connect, and they’ll spread it for you. You don’t need radio. You don’t need some big machine throwing it out there. I’m living proof of that.”
Simpson, among others, believes the current system for commercial country music is eroding, and he’s convinced his approach will only continue to reach more people without the help of the machine.
“It took me this long to get right here. [But] this isn’t all I want, this isn’t all I know my music [can do]. I know that there are a whole lot of people out there that aren’t aware, that will connect with [my] music. … The industry’s not gonna give it to me. And at this point I don’t want them to. I’m going to prove to them I can do it. In 10 years I’ll be the biggest country star on this planet, I guaran-fuckin’-tee it. And there’s nothing they can do to stop that.”
Back in August, you may recall Simpson’s now infamous Facebook post railing against the ACM Awards for appropriating the name and legacy of his late friend, country music legend Merle Haggard. Simpson says he has since received pats on the back from movers and shakers around town for speaking his mind and saying something no one else would vocalize. The recent interview provides more context to that post and how he reached that peak of frustration.
Simpson describes first moving to Nashville to seek out his musical heroes, bluegrass and folk legends like John Prine, with whom he now shares an office. Initially, he says he was rejected by labels and booking agents, occasionally criticised for his appearance. He eventually left Nashville for Utah, where he worked at a railyard. Knowing that wasn’t what he was meant to do, he returned to the Music City for a second shot. It all worked out, of course, but it only happened by going outside of the usual channels Nashville requires.
The interview also sheds some light on his temperment and shifting perspectives. In his follow-up Facebook post in August, Simpson said he was fed up with Nashville and leaving town. Yet, now he expresses a desire to see the Nashville system collapse, saying that he’s “gonna make this town a little special project.”
That attitude could become a stumbling block for him in the days ahead. With heaps of praise from fans, critics and musical heroes, he no doubt feels emboldened now more than ever. If you’ve ever seen him live, you know he has a ferocious intensity when it comes to his music, and it seems like he’s learned to channel that energy into his career. Yet, all of that combined with the desire to watch Babylon burn and a belief that he will be the next huge thing down the road could spell trouble.
Or maybe a figure like him is exactly what this format needs right now.