Sturgill Simpson Leaves His Old Sound (and the Spotlight) in the Rear View

JACKSON, KY. — Earlier this month, Sturgill Simpson headed eastward from Lexington until he hit Highway 15, which he drove until it dead-ended into Highway 30. This was the way into Jackson, the sparse, hilly town of around 2,000 people he grew up in. Just before the intersection, a small sign announced that he was in the right place: “Hometown of Grammy Award Winning Artist Sturgill Simpson.”

“I can retire. How many Grammys do I need, right?” he asked from behind the wheel of his black Subaru WRX STI. “That’s 10 Grammys right there.”

He drove up to Hillcrest Drive, where he and his parents used to live in a prefab home, then picked up his cousin Brad in the McDonald’s parking lot before heading to his family graveyard, which sits on High Top Mountain, which he named his first album after six years ago. He went to the White Flash diner on Main Street, ordering two cheeseburger sliders and fries, almost sneaking out unnoticed before signing a pair of guitars for the owner and his son.

“Musically speaking this is the most culturally rich pocket of American existence outside of jazz,” he said of the region where bluegrass was forged. But the coal industry’s decline has left things precarious, and he’s been thinking through ways to meaningfully offer help.

Simpson, 41, moved away from this stretch of Appalachia when he was 7, but its ethic and spirit remain bone-deep in him. It’s where he watched his family play music, at a friend’s house with a stage built into the living room. Where he first picked up his grandfather’s guitar. Where he learned to hold a grudge.

Those are all things that served him well later in life, as a singer who found success in Nashville only to retreat from the country music business and its demands, and as someone whose zigzag path has been idiosyncratic and misunderstood.

Next week he’ll release “Sound & Fury,” his fourth album, and first since “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” which went to No. 3 on the Billboard album chart in 2016 and later won the Grammy for best country album.

“Sailor’s Guide” was an intimate song cycle about fatherhood that became one of the most acclaimed country — or country-adjacent — albums in recent memory. “Sound & Fury” is an album full of songs fired in the caldron of that new success: resentful, agonized, seething.

It is also not a country album. It’s high-viscosity Southern rock à la ZZ Top, with a potent rhythmic undertow. “A sleazy synth-rock dance record,” he said, citing John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ album with Eric Clapton, and also the Bee Gees, Cheap Trick, T. Rex and La Roux as touchstones.

Along with the album comes an anime film, released on Netflix the same day, conceptualized by Simpson and directed by some of the leading figures in the world of Japanese animation. Both the album and the film are about how vicious systems take advantage of the people who must live by their rules. In the film, a female warrior battles savage underworld bosses, and wins. On the album, most songs are preoccupied with taking a stand against the casual cruelties of the music business — Simpson is the warrior. On the rollicking and cheerily defiant “Last Man Standing,” he sneers,

Well Momma didn’t raise nobody’s dum-dum
Not trying to win a medal for being the most humdrum
And you know Daddy likes his alone time
That’s why he doesn’t have any friends
But watch and see, you’ll be looking at me
Last man standing in the end

It’s hard to think of another recent artist who, at the peak of his success, jerked so sharply away from the decisions that had led him to that point. But while Simpson’s star was rising, he was chafing. Nashville wanted him to be a poster boy for outlaw country, a tag he rejected. (In 2017, he busked and wryly answered fan questions outside the Country Music Association Awards ceremony, streaming the escapade on Facebook Live.) The pressures of the road began to conflict with the demands of fatherhood. He grew weary of the team of people he’d hired to protect his interests.

Nominated for two Grammys in 2017, he tussled with the show’s producers over whether he’d even be allowed to perform. (He did, with the Dap-Kings.) And he was anxious about the possibility of a Grammys-style upset in which — up against Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and Drake — he’d win album of the year. If he’d won, his plan was to hand the trophy to Beyoncé, then walk out of the building.

To capitalize on the attention from his nominations, he announced a string of performance dates. “We weren’t going to be on the road at all that year, but you kind of have to go keep your face out there,” said Miles Miller, who has drummed in Simpson’s band since 2012. “It was a loooong year.”

Miller continued, “The No. 1 thing he always says is it’s hard to be inspired when you’re not inspired.”

Out on tour rather than at home with his young children, Simpson was miserable: “Honestly, there was a point in 2017 where I thought I was just going to just go away,” he said plainly. Simpson’s music career didn’t begin in earnest until his mid-30s — he knew what life was like before it, and was mentally prepared for life after it.

He chose to write it all down. “I knew I had to cathartically process it all and get it out,” he said. “And a really, like, laid-back country record was not the way to do that, you know? I needed to purge a lot of emotion that I’d been carrying around.”

In 2017, after the Grammys, Simpson had sinus surgery, and during his weeks of recovery, took to listening to the music he was raised on, while high on medical-grade edibles. One day, he was reading “Macbeth”: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“I was like, that’s how I feel right now,” he recalled. “Like, what is all this really for other than making a bunch of strangers happy and trying to let people have fun?”

CreditKristine Potter for The New York Times

Recorded at a vintage-equipment-packed studio in a motor inn in Waterford, Mich., about 45 minutes north of Detroit, “Sound & Fury” is, he said, the product of “therapeutic indignation.” For two weeks, he holed up there with his engineer Paul Cossette and his touring band — Chuck Bartels on bass, Bobby Emmett on keys, Miller on drums — and with Kurosawa films playing on mute, pushed the creaky gear past its comfort zone: “I wanted it to hit like a Wu-Tang record.”

Whereas Simpson’s prior albums were emphatically ruminative, this one is about bodily abandon. His vocals, snarling and aggrieved, are buried under layers of processing. They’re a secondary concern to the saltiness of his guitar playing, the shuddering synths approximating a catastrophic weather event, the multiple layers of percussion (including some looped from several years ago, when Simpson flew out the legendary soul drummer James Gadson to Nashville to record some preliminary tracks).

“I could’ve very easily probably made the same record five times by now and just gone right down that middle lane and played it safe, and I’d have $ 80 million in the bank,” Simpson said dryly. “And I’d probably be hanging from a [expletive] rope on one of these trees over here by now, you know what I mean? So it’s not worth it.”

By the middle of 2017, the core of the record was complete. But Simpson had grander ambitions for it. For part of his time in the Navy, he was stationed in Japan, where he was introduced to anime. With the help of a well-connected friend, he made overtures to some of its leading creators in hopes of securing one of them to make a video.

He got a meeting with Hiroaki Takeuchi, a well-connected producer, who subsequently introduced Simpson to Junpei Mizusaki, the director of “Batman Ninja,” who told Simpson, “I deal with these things, these feelings,” the musician recalled. “I know exactly what you’re singing about.” Soon after, a dream team of collaborators divvied up the album song by song: Mizusaki; Takashi Okazaki, the creator of “Afro Samurai”; Koji Morimoto, an animator on “Akira”; and others.

Rather than make the film directly autobiographical, Simpson created a hyperreal world of evil: “hegemonic structures, politics, corruption, greed — you know, things that usually lead to really [expletive] music,” he said. “Basically, we made ‘Yojimbo’ set in a dystopian future,” he explained, referring to the 1961 samurai film.

Simpson traveled to Japan six times to supervise the creation of the movie, which cost around $ 1.2 million to make — “Something they just had to do to get me to turn the record in,” he joked about his record label’s involvement.

During this period when he wasn’t actively recording music, Simpson found himself pulled in another direction: acting. In 2017, an audition with a casting director quickly led to an unlikely place — reading alongside Mahershala Ali for the third season of “True Detective.”

He didn’t get the role. “Everybody was understandably terrified, I’m sure, about the thought of some dude that’s never done that [expletive] being in arguably the most anticipated season of television in quite some time,” he said. But dominoes started to fall. He appeared in “One Dollar,” a drama on CBS All Access. He played a zombie (and wrote the theme song) for “The Dead Don’t Die,” the Jim Jarmusch zombie film. He appeared in “The Hunt,” the horror satire that was recently pulled from distribution following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.

Most propitiously, Simpson appears in “Queen & Slim,” the feature-film directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”), as a white police officer who pulls over a black couple on a date, gets into a confrontation with them, and then is killed, setting the film’s arc in motion.

Simpson, Matsoukas said, was a revelation: “Somebody white who understood, as black filmmakers, as black people, our story, our narrative. Who wanted to push that forward, who wanted to show the complexities of the black experience in America, and was comfortable playing in that role and wouldn’t think twice about it, wouldn’t be ashamed, and it actually is part of their activism. He’s very much an activist.”


CreditKristine Potter for The New York Times

Simpson’s home in southeast Tennessee, where he recently moved with his wife and three sons, is miles away from anything resembling a town. It is, in every way, far from Nashville. The ceilings are high, the kids have the run of the place, and the Wi-Fi is spotty. “When we walked into it, I was just, like, this is it. I want to die in this house,” he said. “Soon as I get to this place I feel like my whole disposition downshifts about three gears.”

It is, if not an attempt to recreate his own childhood, then at least an effort to provide his children a life not predicated upon his success. “I had such a normal, anonymous, peaceful life for so long, and then it was just such a sudden transition,” he said. “I knew myself well enough to know I probably won’t do this forever, and I want to be able to maintain some semblance of that when I decide to just be a normal dude.”

Having felt the pressure of taking on too much, he is brutally selective about what he’ll give his time to. Rather than set out on a grueling yearlong arena tour, he’ll begin the album’s promotion with a handful of small shows, paid for out of pocket, with all proceeds going to the Special Forces Foundation, a charity that supports Green Berets and their families. Next year, he’ll do 40 shows starting in February. (Simpson’s original idea for an opener: Sleater-Kinney.)

“I can safely say I have probably turned down as much money as I’ve made,” he said, “just because the price of it also came with things.”

He has no immediate plan to record new music, because his record deal was for two albums and further negotiations haven’t begun. “How much are they willing to pay to hang my little credibility trophy on their wall?” he said, laughing but not exactly joking.

So for the time being, he’ll stay here, out of reach of anyone who might ask him to do anything other than exactly what he wants.

“I just don’t think I need to make compromises or sacrifices to attain things that ultimately I don’t care about,” he said. “I don’t really know what I would [expletive] do up there in the stratosphere anyway, man, you know?”

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