Depending on who you ask, 2014 ended as either a banner year for country music or the final straw. Over the past few years, country music has attracted a wider audience than ever, thanks in large part to its gratuitous move to the mainstream — music that was simple, riddled with tropes, and an obvious cash grab.
For Florida-Georgia Line, it was a pretty stellar year. The bare-chested bro duo racked up armfuls of country music industry awards, sold millions of records, and performed to sold-out crowds across the country. In the process, though, fans who grew up on the stripped-down sounds of country music past grew resentful of this new music that sounds like nothing more than dad rock sprinkled with the occasional banjo riff.
But then came Sturgill Simpson, the Converse sneaker-wearing singer-songwriter whose rich baritone and gut-wrenching lyricism who quickly became country music’s biggest underground success of 2014. Even though his much-lauded record Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is widely classified as an Americana album, this is country music at its best, even if the industry refuses to agree.
You won’t find Metamodern Sounds In Country Music getting any meaningful airtime on country radio, or any Sturgill Simpson performances at any awards shows. To say that mainstream country hasn’t given this record its due may be the understatement of the century. If anything, the industry has downright ignored it. Which, of course, makes the creeping success of Sturgill Simpson even more interesting.
As he toured across the country, Simpson sold out dates in venues of all sizes, even in cities like San Francisco and Seattle. At the intimate Dallas performance I attended in November 2014, tickets sold out within hours, long before his appearances on national television, including Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. The mystique is building around Sturgill Simpson, and that can only mean good things for the future of country music.
It seems as if “bro-country,” the music made by the likes of Florida-Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, and Jason Aldean, may have started to fizzle. As audiences grow tired of vapid songs about jacked-up trucks and picking up girls, Simpson’s intricately woven songs about love, drugs, and the human condition are the substance that fans have been searching for, with a big dose of that country twang that makes it feel wholly authentic.
As the antithesis to bro-country, Simpson has taken a great deal of risk. It is proven that the party-driven, beer-drenched style is popular with fans and immensely profitable, but it’s clearly something that Simpson wants no part of. In this rebellion against what Nashville record executives think will sell, Simpson is following in the footsteps of a few other country legends who picked up their guitars and eschewed Nashville in favor of Bakersfield, Calif. to seek out a different sound. You know, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Those guys.
With any luck, that risk will pay off for Simpson in the same way that it did for Willie, Waylon, and Merle. The ascent of outlaw country in the 1970s dramatically improved the genre, paved the way for country-infused rock music, and saved us all from yet another decade of boring Glen Campbell ballads.
Now, Simpson has an opportunity to bring his twangy sound to an even broader audience. In January, the artist announced that he had signed with Atlantic, which is quite the leap for an artist who reportedly recorded his most successful record in a cabin with less than $4,000. The fact that a label like Atlantic is willing to take a chance on an artist who sounds nothing like his major-label contemporaries is even more indicative that country music is about to undergo a major shift.
If country music is to survive as anything more than the butt of the music world’s jokes, it needs a guy like Sturgill Simpson more than ever.
Amy McCarthy is a writer and editor living in Dallas. She tweets at @aemccarthy.