Sturgill Simpson staring to the left wearing a blue denim shirt, holding a guitar while sat in front of a black background.

Turtles All the Way Down: The Impact of Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds In Country Music Ten Years On

July 10, 2024 3:53 pm GMT
Last Edited July 11, 2024 12:07 pm GMT

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"Interducin' Metamoder-in Sounds In Country Music… Country Music… Country Music…"

The words echo through the void, the disembodied voice – worn and warm – crackling like a casual call from a CB radio. It fades out just as quickly as it appears, ushering listeners into the next mind-altering half-hour of Sturgill Simpson's Metamodern Sounds In Country Music.

When it was released in May 2014, the artist's sophomore opus catalyzed something within the mainstream country genre; it marked a shift, an awakening. From the moment it began with the rippling opening track 'Turtles All the Way Down' to the hidden story song 'Panbowl', everything about the record was different, its ten tunes a far cry from what had been saturating the genre that spring.

While Luke Bryan's tailgate serenade 'Play It Again' was enjoying its fourth week atop the Hot Country charts and FM radio was dividing its airwaves between Brantley Gilbert's lightweight party anthem 'Bottoms Up' and Thomas Rhett's horny soliloquy 'Get Me Some of That', Metamodern unleashed reptile aliens and psilocybin-fueled truth upon country music.

A record where the good Lord and good ol' LSD find equal footing, where ego death is traded as gospel and the country sounds of yore bleed into the warped cacophony of the future, Metamodern was unlike anything being spun in the genre a decade ago. However, making a groundbreaking masterpiece likely wasn't Simpson's aim when he entered the studio to record the follow-up to his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain.

"We were all just fresh off the road," remembers drummer Miles Miller, whose pillowy yet intricate rhythms blanket the album. When Simpson and his band – comprising Miller, guitarist Laur Joamets, bassist Kevin Black and Mike Webb on keys, with producer Dave Cobb contributing classical guitar and percussion – arrived in Nashville for a whirlwind recording session, cutting the project live-to-tape in just four days, the drummer recalls: "We were either worn down or really energized, or a mix of both."

At that time, there was seemingly no real plan for the album. While the bandleader had a few songs written, Miller explains, "Really, we would go into the studio and do some of those, and then he'd go home and just write based on the vibe of the day." He describes the famously reclusive Simpson as someone who's "always just a moment away from creating something". It was in the after-hours and the in-betweens that this singular country record took shape.

"It was all very spur of the moment, which is kind of the trick," Miller adds. "It's reactionary; it's not overly thought out." Just 20 years old at the time of the record's inception, the drummer contentedly recalls those days in the studio: "It was just a product of the environment we were in. We listened to each other and made heartfelt music with Sturgill at the helm."

"In a way, we didn't know exactly what it was at the time, but we enjoyed it," he adds. "It was really fun, fresh and new. It was like, 'Yeah, this is a little different.'"

Different, it was. From the opening track, Simpson dives feet first into the metaphysical, openly name-dropping various mind-altering substances and speaking of mind gateways and divergent planes of being. Through the sparse and spine-tingling 'Just Let Go' to the syrupy 'It Ain't All Flowers' – both tunes flowing into each other like a wave crashing against perception – he goes for a philosophical swim, paddling through Buddhist theology and ideas of universal consciousness in an attempt to make it all make sense.

"It was obviously a game-changer of a record from the moment we heard it," recalls Tom Bridgewater, founder of Loose Music, the label responsible for releasing the album outside of the U.S. To the label head, what Simpson had created immediately became apparent: "an extraordinary psychedelic country record."

It's not all Fear and Loathing-esque distorted colors and warped images, though. The artist delves much deeper than cinematic trippiness to get to the heart of such altered states. You see, after the forgotten Christmas poinsettia tells you her name and the entire world looks back at you from the bottom of a Heineken bottle, there is this unexplainable moment. The living room ceiling opens up like a can of Spam, a blazing light floods in and something that feels a lot like God drops in to endow this earthly existence with some morsel of meaning.

Simpson explores this slice of psychedelic-induced clarity throughout the album, examining aspects of his own life through an enlightened lens.

Thus, just as there is a "you" before and a "you" after a particular moment, there was country music before Metamodern and country after. It marked a distinct shift in the genre, a time when country tuned in, turned on and began to wake up.

"[Simpson] was going into an area that was way beyond the usual remit of country singers," Bridgewater explains. "It suddenly became apparent that he was different from the rest of the pack."

It's not that these heady ideas were new to the genre; Gram Parsons had taken country cosmic 40 years prior, and progressive concepts, like reincarnation, began to infiltrate the music with Jimmy Webb's 'Highwayman' a few years after that.

Yet Simpson, armed with Metamodern, ushered these ideas into the 21st century, unconsciously challenging the era's dirt road anthems and truckbed ballads and reminding listeners of what country could be. The album – in sound and subject – elbowed the boundaries, inspiring a new wave of musicians to open up and experiment.

Perhaps Tyler Childers wouldn't have been so forthcoming about his own drug use or being guided by that 'Universal Sound' on his celebrated 2017 album Purgatory, a record Simpson himself had a hand in producing.

Maybe Margo Price's recent Strays wouldn't have been so naturally led by the experiences of a mushroom trip, and, within a more mainstream consciousness, it's possible that Kacey Musgraves' star-crossed and Deeper Well wouldn't have had the same mystical potency and Saturn-returning symbolism had Metamodern not expanded the perception of the genre a decade ago.

This isn't to say Simpson was some kind of savior of the genre when he released Metamodern, nor was the album meant as some Tao of twang. The artist seemed solely concerned with making music that was honest to him, resulting in country music reconnecting to its depths and finding a higher plane.

Metamodern has more than held up over the last decade. Since its release in 2014, the album has been repeatedly cited as an immediate classic, inseparable from its mark on the genre. The record's success, however, transcends its metaphysical themes, having much more to do with the fact that it's just an exceptional album, whether you're in the mood for some quality country or a little mind mediation.

"A good song is a good song. It doesn't matter what genre or how long it's been since it was written," Miller asserts, with Bridgewater echoing, "I think it's totally an evergreen record. I don't think it'll ever go out of style."

Especially today, in an age when it seems everyone is talking but no one is saying a thing, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music has become even more essential. It has evolved into a faithful companion for tackling this existence or just a few sufficient sounds to make sense of all this noise.


For more on Sturgill Simpson, see below:

Written by Alli Patton
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