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Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Metamodern Sounds’ Is Still Reshaping Country Music

The week Sturgill Simpson’s breakthrough, generation-defining second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was released, the Number One song on country radio was Brantley Gilbert’s Nickelback-ified ode to women in short shorts and the boys who bring them to the tailgate. It was called “Bottoms Up,” and it wasn’t an aberration: The climate on Music Row in 2014 was still eagerly chasing the bro-country sound that Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Gilbert helped turn into a reliable cash cow. So much so that the only single by a woman to reach the top spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay that year was “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie & Tae, whose entire conceit was to make fun of the whole phenomenon.

It’s not just that the lyrics were repetitive, or that they lacked any recognizable country music instrumentation, or that the men singing them often looked like cardboard cutouts manufactured in a politically neutral pressing plant — though all those things were often true. It’s that everything sounded the same, and that was the point.

The Kentucky-born Simpson started his professional musical career later in life, coming to Nashville to record Metamodern live-to-tape with producer Dave Cobb at the end of 2013, their second project together after his debut, High Top Mountain. He’d done a stint as a railroad worker and in the Navy, and turned his songwriting and performing from an on-again/ off-again hobby into a full-time pursuit at the urging of his wife, Sarah. Simpson was also listening to a lot of records by the underappreciated guitarist Roy Buchanan, who reignited his passion for music and the infinite possibilities it can hold beyond any particular genre.

Simpson was in his mid-thirties when he headed into the studio with Cobb, not exactly the prime age for stardom. “I started when most people were retiring,” he told Rolling Stone in 2021 about his fifth record, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita. “So it was a lot easier to see facets of the job that were not worth taking seriously, probably to a fault. I was already so jaded and cynical from working blue-collar jobs my whole life.”

Cynical, but nowhere near stymied. Simpson had just become a father, and he’d been reading a lot of books as part of what he described to NPR as his “last great existentialist dilemma.” They were books about spirituality, science, and the cosmos, and where they all intersect beautifully or clash violently — the latter usually when political or capitalistic motivations enter the fray. He was interested in writing songs that helped him process the questions in his mind about the how and why of human existence, but he also wanted to leave the listener with some answers. And that answer, on Metamodern, was love.

“Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT/they all way changed the way I see,” he sings on “Turtles All the Way Down,” the album’s opening track, which was inspired in part by Simpson’s interest in the mind-expanding properties of hallucinogenics and the theory of infinite regress, not necessarily in that order. “But love’s the only thing that ever changed my life.”

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, inspired in name by Ray Charles’ genre-rebellious 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, is an album about love as the only tangible reason to wade through the bullshit of life — to fight through the pain, to try the consciousness-shifting drugs, to even go to the tailgate parties those bros were preoccupied with singing about. Reissued this week via a 10th anniversary edition, Metamodern is anchored by Simpson’s deep, world-worn voice, which sounds like someone who’s spent years hollering these questions to the wind and only gotten stronger, and a band — including guitarist Laur Joamets, bassist Kevin Black, and drummer Miles Miller — far more worried about making music to fit the story than ascribing to any genre rules. As a result, it sounded both more traditionally country than anything on the radio at the time and more musically experimental, too. Until Metamodern, it didn’t seem like those two ideas could even exist on the same record in the 2010s, let alone the same song.

Metamodern is an album that shows how the best music can come when you’re respectful of the past but fearless about the future. There’s as much Bakersfield twang and bluegrass-inspired picking as there is renegade, Beatles-esque studio experimentalism. To create the sound that ushers in and out the masterful “It Ain’t Flowers,” Simpson and Cobb ran already recorded tape backwards through the console, resulting in a composed chaos that hits more Seventies funk than anything else. The album’s only cover is a version of Eighties new wave band When in Rome’s “The Promise,” because in Simpson’s hands anything can be country, and nothing can be country, all at the same time.

In songs like “Living the Dream,” Simpson’s idea of love isn’t just about fighting for your partner, it’s about fighting for yourself. It’s an approach that’s paid dividends down the line (and in Grammy awards and nominations). “I don’t need to change my strings,” he sings on “Living the Dream, “’cause the dirt don’t hurt the way I sing.”

When Metamodern was released a decade ago, it’s not like there wasn’t a vibrant independent country scene in Nashville. Artists like Margo Price, Andrew Combs, Robert Ellis, Amanda Shires, Caitlin Rose, and many, many more were making excellent records that existed on an entirely different plain from what happened on 16th Avenue, separated by a metaphorical ocean if not the actual Cumberland River. And Jason Isbell’s Southeastern was Americana’s defining record of 2013, showing that an entire musical life could exist outside of mainstream Nashville, or even a big record label.

But for the most part, Music Row tried to ignore all that, especially Simpson the artist. Despite massive critical acclaim for Metamodern, eventual performances on Saturday Night Live and furious late-night rounds, he wasn’t welcomed into the “country music family.” His songs weren’t played on country radio, and he wasn’t nominated for country music awards (later, he would famously busk outside of the CMA Awards with his Grammy in his guitar case). The institutional support that Nashville showers on its chosen people was nowhere to be found when it came to Simpson.

They couldn’t, however, ignore the music. Metamodern was so thrilling, so engaging, so true to what country music was supposed to actually be that even mainstream artists couldn’t resist. No longer was anyone able to make a case that traditionally inspired country music was boring or out of step with modern times — or use that thinking as an excuse for sonic laziness — because here was Simpson, offering a path that flirted in rock, psychedelia, and even R&B built on the skeleton of string instruments and bluegrass roots. 

And thus Simpson was made into the “bad boy” of the genre, the foil to bro country’s foibles, the “outlaw” king that made the narrative so neatly black and white. It worked, mostly because Simpson never censored himself: He didn’t really care if he said something inflammatory, sung about drugs and called out Music Row, and he wouldn’t have listened if anyone told him not to. Journalists would often bait him for a juicy Sturgill Simpson soundbite. Truth was, everyone wanted a way to move past and beyond bro country. They just didn’t want to be the first one to say it.

“That was a conversation that a lot of people really wanted to start and have,” Simpson said in 2021. “And they needed a poster boy for this side of the coin. A lot of those interviews were straight up performance art.”

But music did want to move on. By the next year, Chris Stapleton and 2015’s Traveller were barreling up the charts and eventually into stadiums, and Keith Urban was sporting a Simpson T-shirt on American Idol. Matthew McConaughey praised Simpson on a podcast. Metamodern was an album that everyone could agree on — mainstream country fans liked it, and the indie listeners did too (not to mention fans of rock, Americana, and beyond). It was a bridge between two very different sides of Nashville, even though Simpson himself was often the one left to tread water alone.


Soon, the Number One country album in 2017 was the debut from Luke Combs, which sounded downright traditional compared to the “Bottoms Up” days of yore. Stapleton, Tyler Childers, and Zach Bryan started booking bigger venues than most bros could ever touch. And this week, on the 10th anniversary of Metamodern’s release, Florida Georgia Line’s Nashville bar closed its doors, putting the final nail in the coffin of bro country — while Lainey Wilson’s “Wildflowers and Wild Horses,” with its discernible country-and-western twang, went Number One on the country charts. Country, apparently, is cool again.

Simpson is modest when it comes to taking credit for Metamodern’s role in this evolution. “I’m really lucky nobody else wrote a song about turtles and drugs in 2014,” he told Rolling Stone. True, nobody did, and nobody could — but many have continued to try.

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