What is Americana? A vexed question, which has been tortuously debated by fans and artists alike. Ultimately, it seems necessary to settle with the rather unsatisfactory conclusion that Americana is something you know when you hear it. Roots music – heavily country-influenced – but not embarrassing to urban, urbane listeners. “Country music for people who like the Smiths”, as Billy Bragg put it. The implication being that traditional Country music is illiberal, unsophisticated, non-ironic.
That might be a fair stone to cast at the polished, professional music machine which Nashville became in the 1990s. At that time, Country had evolved into the musical equivalent of an Instant Noodle Pot: quick, cheap, bland and bearing only the most superficial resemblance to its delicious and satisfying original. But before the advent of Garth Brooks and his ilk, Country music had been something considerably more edgy, with hillbilly roots showing through all too often, and a tawdry glamour that neither knew nor cared where to draw the line between glitz and grime.
The history of Country music is littered with a collection of some of the strangest people ever to take charge of a microphone. Scandals have ranged from murder (Western Swing star Spade Cooley killed his wife in in 1961) to kidnapping and brutal attack (of Tammy Wynette in 1978) and stopping at all points of gun, drug and alcohol misdemeanors in between (take a bow Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, Willie Nelson et. al.)
The extremely, un- self-consciously weird can be embarrassing, and by the ‘90s, when Jerry Springer offered up his freak-show of hicksville humanity in a fishbowl for the world to gawp at, the only way for Country stars to redeem themselves before a wider public was to find a different path. Helped by Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash opened up the dark heart of country in a move that brought both his music and the literate Gothic of Reznor and Cave to a wider audience. Other crossovers were achieved by Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks; meanwhile bands such as Calexico and My Morning Jacket began to excavate Country music to create the Alt. Country sound, and Americana began to emerge.
The genuine, deranged spirit of Country was left to the cowpunk of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hank III and to the older artists of the genre who could not, or would not, make a popular crossover. But now, as Americana draws dangerously close to becoming Establishment, a Kentucky native with the gratifyingly bucolic name of Sturgill Simpson steps forward. His first album, 2013’s High Top Mountain – recorded in Nashville with some of the city’s finest session musicians – was determinedly not trendy. Ignoring the mythical South completely, the album was the pure traditional Country product of the present-day white, poor Southerner with the same dreams of Nashville fame and fortune as his predecessors, but with new social crises of vanishing traditional jobs and the lure of escapism through drugs. “Many a man down in these here hills made a living off that old black gold. Now there ain’t nothing but welfare and pills, and the wind never felt so cold.” The lyrics and sound of High Top emanate from a straightforward authenticity without appeasing metropolitan Americana mindsets, and the album looked set to establish Simpson as a ‘new’ traditional Country artist harking back to the sounds of the 1970s Outlaws such as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
However within months of recording his first album, Sturgill Simpson returned to the studio and the result is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, an album recorded over four days with his road band, with the tracks cut live to tape. The result is unique; a traditional studio sound filtered through an electro-cosmic lens. And so it is that Simpson begins to look as though he may have a unique place in the pantheon of delirium that is Country Music. In comparison to the tight, slightly deferential sound of his first album, Metamodern is looser and more confident. The foundation of the sound is clean country dancefloor, but like a bad girl letting her stocking tops show, unstructured and distorted sounds add unexpected piquancy. Simpson unleashes rough blue-yodel howls and at times electronica bursts out between breaks, making an unlikely but compelling cocktail of sounds. At times his lyrics read like blues but sound country: “Been dancing with the demons all my life / Every time I find my groove the cut in like a knife”. Elsewhere, the lyrics and and music crystallize into the kaleidoscopic grooves of psychedelia; “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane / where reptile aliens made of light pull out all our pain / tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brains.” Somewhere in the midst of all this, there is room for revival tent gospel on ‘A Little Light’, which sounds as though it could have been recorded in a session at Sun Records in the ‘50s.
With Metamodern, Sturgill Simpson has created something genuinely peculiar but astonishingly compelling. The sound of a search for love through the vales of drugs, drink, hard living and old time religion still belongs to a voice with a Southern drawl and to a sound laced with twang. The best of Country has always been wonderfully bizarre; Sturgill Simpson fits right in.
The first track of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, ‘Turtles All The Way Down’, is available now from iTunes. The album will be released on Loose Music on May 12