NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sturgill Simpson’s records have defied easy characterization (Country? Americana? Experimental Southern rock?), but this year The Recording Academy decided whatever genre he was, he made one of the best records of the year. And that’s enough for him.
“The fact that there are a million people around the world Googling my name and trying to figure out who the hell I am right now is just enough for me,” the Kentucky-bred singer said with a laugh during a phone interview Tuesday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Simpson’s album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” was the surprise underdog nomination for the all-genre album of the year category alongside blockbuster albums by Adele and Beyoncé when the Grammy nominations were announced Tuesday. It was also nominated as best country album of the year.
Although the album was a critical favorite and topped Billboard’s Country Albums chart when it was released, Simpson remains outside of mainstream country music’s radar. Not a blip on country radio, no country music award nominations, but his music incorporates elements of traditional country in the vein of Waylon Jennings, while experimenting with jazz, soul, rock and pop.
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“Musically when I open my mouth, it’s going to be a country song,” Simpson said. “But I listen to everything except country music these days in my life. I am trying to encapsulate and incorporate a lot of those elements and also push my understanding of what a country album could be.”
Simpson started his professional career as a musician late in life, after stints in the Navy and working on the railroad and a series of odd jobs throughout the country. His first two records, “High Top Mountain,” in 2013 and “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” in 2014 framed him as a student of the genre as well as an outsider. The later record earned him a Grammy nomination for best Americana album.
“Sailor’s Guide” was recorded in just a week with longtime Nashville engineer David Ferguson, who worked with producer Rick Rubin on Johnny Cash’s last records. Ferguson, who learned under legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement, added lush orchestration to Simpson’s brash honky-tonk sound. A concept album about his life lessons to his son, the record includes the recently deceased Sharon Jones’ brass band, The Dap-Kings, as well as violin, bagpipes and a cello, and an impressive cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
But he caused a bit of controversy this year when he posted on Facebook that the Academy of Country Music Awards should not have created an award named after Merle Haggard when he felt they never showed true love to the country outlaw, who died this year. He later added that he felt like he would be “blackballed” from the industry for his comments.
Simpson had developed a friendship with the country icon over the last couple of years of his life.
“He had a very elastic flexibility as a musician and also a fearlessness,” Simpson said. “Merle made a career out of doing what Merle wanted to do. That was a huge influence and gave me a lot of courage, not only as a musician but as a human being just because sitting and talking to him, he would say things that most people would never say out aloud out of fear of how it might make them look. But with him there was no filter.”
As for whether he still felt blackballed by the industry despite the Grammy nomination, he said he’s always had the support of many musicians, producers and engineers in Nashville.
“This to me tells me that we’re just going to reach a lot more people and it tells me that I have reached a lot more people than I was even aware of,” Simpson said. “And that’s so amazing and humbling. It’s insane.”
Follow Kristin M. Hall at twitter.com/kmhall