There’s a problem that arises whenever you talk about singer-songwriters who work in a vein of country music situated somewhere between the slickly popular and the ruggedly traditional. Inevitably, these artists get lumped into the latter category and positioned against the former. They are sold as “antidotes” to the excesses of the mainstream stuff. And whenever this happens, what’s intended to be praise instead stigmatizes the musicians in question. Because while there’s plenty to enjoy about the rugged traditionalism of country’s less-profitable wing, nobody wants to be the “eat your vegetables” option.
Other things no musician wants to be: “nostalgic,” “old-timey,” “conservative,” “stodgy.” More often than not, these words are more applicable to listeners than to the artists who get tarred by them. At least that’s true of two of my current favorite country artists, Lydia Loveless and Sturgill Simpson.
Both have made albums that rank among the best LPs of 2014’s first half: Loveless’s Somewhere Else came out in February, and Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music arrives May 13. You can tell from both records that Loveless and Simpson have done their country-music homework. If you want to consider them torchbearers, the evidence is there to support it. They both specialize in rough-hewn melodies and lyrics that tell instantly relatable tales of heartache and self-destructive behavior. Given their maverick spirits and the exemplary consonance of their monikers, Loveless and Simpson are naturals for the “outlaw” tag.
But what makes Loveless and Simpson interesting and promising artists are the idiosyncrasies — how they integrate musical tradition into singular sensibilities, and the way they present American roots music as the vital, constantly changing, and even bizarre medium it truly is.
I like Loveless and Simpson for how they take what’s familiar and make it unmistakably theirs. I’m tempted to drop the country label from Loveless altogether in the wake of Somewhere Else — with its barroom guitars turned up as loud as Loveless’s powerhouse vocals, Somewhere Else is an excellent rock and roll record, pure and simple. As for Simpson, Metamodern Sounds is both a country record and an existential thesis on country, not to mention a deep dive into druggy psychedelia. In short, Loveless and Simpson defy description, which I learned firsthand recently.
“I once did an interview for an entire hour that got scrapped, and the person just wrote, ‘Well I wanted to pin Lydia Loveless as the anti–Taylor Swift but I didn’t get that from her, so I just decided not to print the article.’ Like, wow. That’s bullshit. You took about an hour of my time and because I didn’t want to just be the not–Taylor Swift person, you scrap it.”
Let the record show that it took approximately five minutes for Swift to come up when I phoned Loveless at her Columbus, Ohio, home last week. And let it also indicate that I was not the one who brought up the world’s reigning country-pop superstar.
Now, let’s quickly point out the silliness of the comparison, which comes up often in Loveless’s press coverage. Yes, Loveless and Swift are about the same age (23 and 24, respectively). And, sure, they both sing about bad relationships. And, OK, they’re both females who play the guitar. But Loveless and Swift exist in entirely different strata. This can perhaps be seen most clearly by observing their respective core audiences — Swift writes confessional pop songs that are appreciated most by teenage girls and young women, while Loveless specializes in literate country-rock that appeals strongest to (as Loveless herself put it with characteristic irreverence) 40-year-old dudes. Loveless, in fact, wrote a great song about this called “Steve Earle,” in which a creepy old guy who resembles the shaggy alt-country legend stalks her after a show.
While Loveless and Swift have little to do with each other, there will be those who will attempt to turn Something Else into some kind of rejoinder to Red, as if Loveless’s main purpose is to counteract Swift’s supposed deficiencies. This, unsurprisingly, bemuses Loveless.
“When I’m writing a song, I’m not thinking about how much I hate Taylor Swift. I’m just thinking about my own songs,” she said. “It’s always weird, but people have to have an angle, I guess.”
Now that we’ve discredited the Swift comparison, I’m going to contradict myself slightly and underline one substantive similarity between the two artists: Just as Swift has come to represent the Nashville establishment while pushing her music and image far beyond the boundaries set by that establishment, Loveless embodies the spirit of country even as she has consciously moved away from it over the course of three albums. For one thing, Loveless’s distance from Nashville is physical. While she’s pondered a move to L.A., she knows the capital of country isn’t a good fit, in part because Loveless’s native state has inarguably informed her music.
“We’re working-class, angry, pissed-off Midwesterners, and we’re cold most of the time,” she said of Ohio. “So it means being stuck inside and being forced to write songs and having a lot of time to brood.”
After emerging with 2010’s The Only Man and finding an audience and critical favor with 2011’s Indestructible Machine, Loveless struggled during the writing of Somewhere Else to live up to her newfound reputation as a two-fisted honky-tonk upstart. For the first time, Loveless looked at herself as a professional songwriter and was keenly aware of her audience’s looming (and potentially limiting) expectations. She even took to writing every day in an office, like a seasoned Music Row veteran. But the material Loveless generated at this time, which she has described as “very boring country songs,” was frustrating and unsatisfying. (“I would go in there every day and have a nervous breakdown,” she told Spin in January.) It was only after a rock-fueled trip to South by Southwest, and a songwriting breakthrough with the 19th century French lit–inspired (and Somewhere Else highlight) “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” that Loveless finally was able to get out of her own head and fully embrace her inner Tim-era Paul Westerberg.
“I was 15 when I started writing my first record, and I just had a lot more of an attitude about everything, I guess. I wanted to, like, save country music. Now I just want to make good music,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to stop playing country music, but I didn’t really want to be defined as a country artist anymore, because it can get really snobby, and it’s very strange. I still write country songs sometimes, but I feel like it’s just more who I am than what I write.”
The most country aspect of Loveless’s songwriting is her ability to write poetically (even elegantly) about low (even trashy) culture. Her use of language is both deliberate and conversational, like the way “honey” peppers the lyrics as both a term of endearment and a subtle putdown. (When I told Loveless that this reminds me of how Bruce Springsteen uses the word “sir” in his songs, her laugh also seemed to have a double meaning: “I’m flattered” and “You’ve thought about this way too much.”) While Loveless’s recent reading includes the aforementioned Verlaine and Rimbaud as well as old favorites like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver, it was a book about the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that inspired two of Somewhere’s best songs, “Hurts So Bad” and “To Love Somebody.”
“They were insane, and that’s the sort of thing I’m interested in,” Loveless said.
Then there’s my favorite lyrical tangent on Somewhere Else, which occurs in “Chris Isaak,” when the titular singer is used as a metaphor for one-sided infatuation. Before Loveless digs into that, she opens with a brief digression about her favorite Metallica album, Ride the Lightning, and how “For Whom the Bell Tolls” lasts as long as the drive to the house where the guy she’s obsessing over lives.
Vivid storytelling like this is the bedrock of Loveless’s songs, as are the nods to decidedly non-country signifiers. For Record Store Day, a national holiday for nostalgia fetishists everywhere, Loveless took another sly swipe at purists by covering a Kesha song, “Blind,” for a limited edition 7-inch. While the record didn’t come completely out of left field for Loveless — she’s expressed admiration for the former country singer and reformed party-pop diva in the past — I suspected that at least part of the appeal for cutting “Blind” was tweaking the anti-pop snobs.
“I guess I do like pushing people’s buttons,” Loveless admitted. “But I was born in ’90, so mainstream pop is kind of my thing. A lot of people think it’s ironic or something, but it’s really not. I just wanted to show that it influences me without making a joke out of it.”
Anyone tempted to accuse Loveless of contrarianism should spend an hour in a hotel room with Sturgill Simpson. I met up with the 35-year-old Kentucky native a few weeks ago before a show at a bar down the street in Madison, Wisconsin. He was in the midst of an upper-Midwest run of solo gigs, and at one point (after dispensing a rambling, convoluted, deeply weird, and completely mesmerizing answer to a straightforward question) confided that he hadn’t spoken to another person in a few days.
In many ways, Simpson’s 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, is the epitome of a classicist country record, with its mix of bluegrass, fevered fingerpicking, song titles like “Railroad of Sin,” and Simpson’s expressive snarl, which sounds remarkably like Waylon Jennings. Then there’s Simpson’s personal story — after enduring substance abuse issues throughout his twenties, he didn’t get serious about music until his early thirties; while living in Salt Lake City, he did a stint as an actual train conductor, a job he loved. (He quit after he “screwed up” and accepted a promotion to management.) No wonder Simpson has already been invited to play the Grand Ole Opry. If Sturgill Simpson didn’t exist, the Grand Ole Opry would’ve had to invent him.
But when I asked Simpson what he listens to, he was almost comically perverse. “EDM,” he said. “Or Tool. If they put a record out, I’ll always buy that. But I’m pretty self-limiting.”
While High Top Mountain appeared to deliver a new savior for the last remaining true believers of the alt-country movement, Simpson is single-minded in his desire to transcend it. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music sums up Simpson’s self-conscious (and occasionally deconstructionist) approach to roots music, starting with the idea that it can (and should) reflect modern-day realities.
“Our generation right now, everybody is caught up on nostalgia, and technology has never been moving faster,” Simpson said. “You get these weird juxtapositions coming together, so I wanted to do an album that was kind of a roller coaster between nostalgic sentimentality and then contrast it with corporate media fucking killing the world and all that kind of thing. I was like, yeah, Metamodern is kind of like the perfect title.”
Musically, Metamodern Sounds isn’t a dramatic departure from High Top Mountain. Simpson’s musical reference points have merely moved from the early ’50s to the late ’60s, specifically records like the Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers and Gene Clark’s With the Gosdin Brothers that infused high lonesome melancholy with a chemically altered consciousness. (This was the precursor to what Gram Parsons later classified as “cosmic American music.”) At times, Metamodern Sounds is almost unbearably lovely, particularly on barrel-chested ballads like “The Promise” (a refashioned cover of the ’80s radio staple by New Wave band When In Rome) and “Just Let Go,” which could become a wedding standard if Tim McGraw ever decides to cover it. But an undercurrent of psychic terror also runs throughout the record, and finally comes to the forefront during a climatic mini-suite that devolves into a sinister sound collage.
During our hourlong conversation, Simpson claimed that he attempted to introduce an EDM influence into his music during Metamodern Sounds’s most bruising passages, only with “real” or standard country instrumentation re-creating those wubby drops. (“I don’t want to piss people off, but I think Skrillex is great,” he said with a conspiratorial grin.) The specter of Skrillex might not be immediately apparent when playing the record, but Simpson’s all-consuming fascination with spiritual, metaphysical, and supernatural phenomena during the writing of Metamodern Sounds comes across loud and clear in the lyrics. For instance, on the album-opening track “Turtles (All the Way Down),” Simpson sings about encountering Jesus and Buddha in the space of a few lines. Then things get really weird.
“There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane,” Simpson croons. “Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
“I was kind of bored of drinking songs, you know?” Simpson explained simply. At that point, he had just wrapped an extended monologue touching on (among other subjects) Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, his theory that the Pyramids were built by people “hopped up on all kinds of shit,” ancient Hinduism, the Buddhist belief in a six-tiered state between life and death called bardo, and the impending birth of his first child, a son, in June. I think Simpson may have also theorized that his unborn child communicated with him via a phone call from his wife to the studio where he was making Metamodern Sounds. But I could be wrong about that. It was a pretty intense encounter in that hotel room. My brain still feels a little scrambled.
“Everybody’s going to get hung up on the drug stuff and think that it’s all about drugs,” Simpson said, referring to lyrics in “Turtles” that mention marijuana, LSD, and DMT. “Like, really, man, I was saying, ‘OK, yeah, I’ve tried all that shit, too, and didn’t find any answers there, either.’ To me, the record’s about love, as cliché and tired and cheesy as that sounds. It really is. I think that it’s kind of been the one certainty I’ve ever really discovered. Nothing else really matters. Don’t be a dick and be nice to people.”
Simpson has carried this policy over to social media, in that he’s decided to mostly avoid it altogether. “I did a socially conscious experiment for about a year on my Facebook page where I would put, ‘Hey, great show’ or ‘Coming to town, looking forward to it.’ And you get like 12 likes and a couple comments. But then I’d get on there and say something negative about modern country, and sure as shit, 60 comments and 300 likes, because people just really want to join together and be negative. We’re all drawn to it.”
That night at the show, Simpson played “You Can Have the Crown,” an overt swipe at modern country. “So Lord, if I could just get me a record deal / I might not have to worry about my next meal / but I’ll still be trying to figure out what the hell rhymes with Bronco,” Simpson sang. It didn’t quite fit with the philosophical conversation I had with Simpson a few hours prior, and his performance seemed somewhat phoned-in. But the crowd loved it. Afterward, the 50 or so people crowded in the back of the bar cheered loudly and started chanting, “Fuck Toby Keith!” Simpson did not look up, but rather stared at his guitar, searching for a more enlightened dimension.