The Anniversary

Metamodern Sounds In Country Music Turns 10

High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers/Loose Music
High Top Mountain/Thirty Tigers/Loose Music

Sturgill Simpson was disappearing into rabbit holes, obsessed with wikis and subreddits about what he affectionately called “weird shit”: quantum physics, string theory, esoteric cosmology, and anything else that deconstructed reality. He’d spend hours watching Terrence McKenna lectures on YouTube, flip through some Rick Strassman on scribd, then wash it all down with a few .pdfs on multiverse theory. When he wasn’t online, Simpson was touring in support of High Top Mountain, a rollicking outlaw record he’d self-released earlier that year. “I’ve been spendin’ all my nights on the internet,” Simpson sings on one of the album’s standouts. “Looking for a clue but ain’t found one yet.”

High Top Mountain was well-regarded, earning Simpson an invitation to the Opry and a glowing live review in The New York Times. It was one of several significant left-of-center country records released in 2013 — along with Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and Kacey Musgraves’ Same Trailer, Different Park — demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that country artists could find audiences outside Nashville’s “beer, women, and big shiny trucks” formula.

The successes of those promising young singer-songwriters were relative, though. Same Trailer, Different Park might’ve nabbed the Grammy for Best Country Album, but Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” a song that helped coin the term “bro-country,” spent 24 weeks atop the Hot Country Singles chart. If you wanted a push from the powerbrokers in Nashville, you still had to cater to the tailgate.

Eventually, one of Simpson’s rabbit holes led him to a burgeoning group of academics theorizing how the internet had realigned contemporary culture. People had become obsessed with both the past and the future, they argued, using cutting-edge technology to escape the present for the comforting nostalgia of their childhoods. It was behavior Simpson recognized in his adopted Nashville: Country music seemed primed to become the most popular genre in America, though the industry was still looking backwards, convinced the ’90s business model would work indefinitely. The internet was continuing to change the way people shared, consumed, and thought about music, but the industry wasn’t interested in change. Songs became hits through airplay; albums went platinum by selling CDs. “Nobody’s got the balls to make the gamble,” Simpson later told The Fader. “So they keep spinning their thumbs and counting on the formula.”

“The metamodern generation oscillates between a postmodern doubt and a modern desire for sense: for meaning, for direction,” Timotheus Vermeulen, the creator of Notes On Metamodernism, said in 2012. “Grand narratives are as necessary as they are problematic, hope is not simply something to distrust, love not necessarily something to be ridiculed.” Most of the writing on metamodernism from this time is similarly optimistic. It’s what Seth Abramson, whom Simpson was particularly fond of, called “informed naivete.” The internet has broken the old way of life, the metamodernists suggested, but that wasn’t a tragedy — it was a gift. People were now free to create the future.

Simpson spent hours basking in the blue light of his computer, reading the metamodernists along with the other weird shit he loved. Eventually, his wife said she’d had enough. She’d been his biggest champion, the one who’d encouraged him to quit his railroad job in Utah and strike out with music in Nashville, but now she was pregnant. If Sturgill was going to be a father, he couldn’t spend hours reading trip reports on Erowid. “She said, ‘You need to get this out of your system,'” he explained in 2014. “So I just wrote some fucking songs about it.”

Those songs became Simpson’s breakout album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, which turns 10 today. The title is both a nod to his reading and a play on one of Simpson’s favorite records, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. Like Charles’ similarly iconoclastic album, Simpson’s record oscillates between the genre’s past and the future, celebrating its history while kicking down its walls.

Look no further than the first track, “Turtles All The Way Down,” a thesis for the project as a whole. In theory, it’s a country song, with Simpson’s rugged drawl singing about a lake of fire and an encounter with the Devil. By the second verse, though, things start to warp, with a warm Mellotron settling down behind the echoing vocal. “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, they all changed the way I see,” Simpson sings, “but love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.” The drugs were what caught most people’s attention, thanks in part to the song’s video, which captured the hallucinatory feel of a good trip. NPR’s headline was “God, Drugs And Lizard Aliens: Yep, It’s Country Music“; Joe Rogan reached out for a four-hour interview featuring an extended discussion of the pineal gland. Everyone wanted to talk about “Turtles,” though many of them seemed to miss its larger point. “You met someone who sees past your faults and encourages you to believe in yourself — that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” he told CMT. “We all need that.”

Every song on Metamodern finds someone seeking love, whether it’s in another person, a musical heritage, or the universe at large. It’s there in the honky-tonking “Life Of Sin” and “Living The Dream,” songs Simpson and his band would rip through on the late night shows, and it’s in the pair of covers at the record’s core: a mostly faithful take on Bill Napier and Charlie Moore’s trucker anthem “Long White Line” and a dramatic reimagining of When In Rome’s ballad “The Promise.” A ’60s bluegrass song about leaving for good next to an ’80s synth-pop track about staying forever might not have made sense to a country radio programmer, but they sound like natural companions for anyone who grew up on the internet. When you’ve got the whole of recorded music at their fingertips, genres suddenly feel insignificant.

The most stunning one-two punch on the record, though, is in the homestretch. “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego,” Simpson sings on “Just Let Go.” Even 10 years later, it knocks me out — a pitch-perfect opening line that’s followed by shimmering pedal steel and a paean to the great unknown. It’s one of the warmest songs about death, metaphysical or otherwise, I’ve ever heard. As the song fades out, its counterpoint fades in. If “Turtles” and “Just Let Go” are celebrations of psychedelic exploration, “It Ain’t All Flowers” is the flipside, a bad trip through the darkest corners of the mind. By the end of its nearly seven minutes, the song has devolved into a psychic freakout, with feedback and distortion swirling across both stereo channels like a growing hallucination.

Simpson originally wanted to conclude Metamodern with “It Ain’t All Flowers,” but he worried about ending on such a downer. He decided to add a hidden track, a nostalgic memory of his grandfather’s house called “Pan Bowl,” to soften the blow. “I just felt that by the end of the record most folks might need some sort of ‘return to innocence,'” he told NPR. It’s a decision that felt right in 2014, but in 2024 feels out-of-place. “It Ain’t All Flowers” might lack the metamodern optimism that animates the rest of the record, but it’s turned out to be the most prescient.

A year after Metamodern, Trump officially began his campaign for the presidency. Over the next year, the metamodernist belief that the internet would allow for a brighter future, one where access to information and unfettered connectivity improved our lives, proved to be laughably misinformed. Seth Abramson became an unbearably pedantic #Resistance guy known for his absurdly long Twitter threads. Luke Turner, who’d created The Metamodernist Manifesto, collaborated with Shia LeBeouf on He Will Not Divide Us, a cringe-inducing performance piece about Trump that, unsurprisingly, negated its own title.

Simpson, meanwhile, found the industry he’d tried so hard to avoid was suddenly interested. At a Grammy event with Simpson and John Prine, American Songwriter editor Paul Zollo led with a question that summarized the sudden attention: “They’ve been using the ‘s’ word for you, Sturgill. The savior of country music,” he said. “How does that make you feel?” Simpson turned away from the mic to face Prine, his childhood hero who’d become a friend after hearing Metamodern. “You going to help me with this?” Simpson asked. Prine, another country-inflected chameleon, just laughed. Simpson finally turned back to Zollo and shrugged. Zollo smiled, waiting for an answer, but Simpson never provided one, choosing instead to let the question mark hang in the air between them.

In the years since then, country stars in the Sturgill mold have become commonplace. Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan regularly pack stadiums; even the existence of Luke Combs’ massively popular cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” feels indebted to Simpson’s take on “The Promise.” Simpson, though, was never interested in the straight and narrow. After Metamodern, he willfully defied expectations with the soulful A Sailor’s Guide To Earth in 2016 before taking yet another left-turn in 2019 with the blown-out Detroit garage (and anime!) of SOUND & FURY. Even when he returned to more traditional country with the Cuttin’ Grass series and The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita, it was with bluegrass and song-story strummers, distant relatives to the songs on top of the charts.

If you watch that interview with Zollo, you can see an answer in Sturgill’s shrug. Country music? it says. You can save yourselves.

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