The balcony floor is shaking under my feet. My neighbor, a keg of a man in cargo shorts, teeters from foot to foot like a wrecking-ball metronome, on beat with Sturgill Simpson’s drummer. As he bounces—every few seconds coming within inches of crashing into me—he plays his chest like bongos. I can hear, more like feel, his hands thudding against slabs of pectoral flesh, over and through the blast of music coming from the stage.
Before the show began, a helpful Metro worker advised me to stand in this exact spot for optimal audio experience. Now the bass, drums, and guitars combine with Sturgill's voice to form a single vibration that fills my chest. It's as though under my ribcage a dozen funny bones have been struck at once.
The balcony is only somewhat crowded, but to me it feels like an absolute crush, along the lines of Black Friday at Walmart. When my fellow concert-goers squeeze past me, their elbows and shoulders graze my back. Although this contact is clearly incidental, each little nudge sends a fresh burst of adrenlaine up my spine. Meanwhile, puffs of one-hitter smoke drift along the balcony railing and light up parts of my brain that I would prefer stay dimmed. Overall, I feel like Chewbacca in the first "Star Wars" movie, holding off the shrinking walls of a trash compactor with outstretched arms. My mouth remains closed, but inside I'm screaming just like Chewie did, voicing my own existential Wookie protest.
When I finally retreat from the balcony about six songs into Sturgill's set, I encounter a man at the edge of the VIP table area. The bucket hat that protected him from Lollapalooza sun earlier today is pulled down to his eyes. Black coils of hair spill out of the hat and bob around his face as he pumps his knees and swings his elbows in a cariacture hoedown. As he whoops and hollers, his mouth remains say-ahh open. I'm nearly overcome by the urge to drive my fist into his teeth.
I could most certainly use a drink.
With five or maybe 17 beers in me, I'd be able to stand here like a normal person and listen to my favorite country singer—the man so often compared to Waylon Jennings—and feel a genuine connection to the 1100 other people in the room. The things is, I haven't touched a drop in 10 years. In that time, I've only been to four live music shows, and whereas during my drunken heyday I used to go to the Metro every few months, this is my first visit back here since getting sober.
Standing on the balcony without my old cure, I'm discovering that the symptoms that drove me to drink in the first place haven't gone anywhere. Much like Waylon, I feel lonesome, on’ry, and mean. It doesn’t do much good knowing that Sturgill would completely understand.
Sturgill Simpson is an outsider. His early struggles to break through in Nashville informed much of his debut album, "High Top Mountain." In fact, the first line of the first verse of the first song on that first album goes like this: "Well that label man said, 'Son, now can you sing a little bit more clear? / Your voice might be too genuine / Your songs a little too sincere / Can you sing a little more about outlaws and the way things used to be?'"
The name of the song is "Life Ain't Fair and the World is Mean," and its outsider angst reappears throughout the album. On the track "You Can Have the Crown," Sturgill petitions heaven, singing, "Lord, if I could just get me a record deal / I might not have to worry about my next meal." Later, on "Some Days," he asks, "What the honk you gotta do around here to get a little recognition?"—and in the same song he takes aim at his peers, saying, "I'm tired of other people trying to take what's mine / And I'm tired of y'all playing dress up and trying to sing them old country songs."
"High Top Mountain" is a straightforward, but by no means conventional, country album, released in 2013. One year later Sturgill returned with his sophmore effort, "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." Whereas on "High Top Mountain" Sturgill documented the struggle to establish himself, with "Metamodern Sounds" he goes on the offensive, defying the conventions of a Nashville scene that Jason Aldean, a chief perpetuator of so-called "bro-country," has aptly described as "Hollywood with a touch of twang." (Sturgill would agree with Aldean's assessment, but the two men would differ as to whether Nashville's vapid glitz is to be celebrated or reconsidered.) It's almost as if, knowing that he wouldn't be accepted anyway, Sturgill deliberately concocted a warlock's brew that mainstream country music couldn't stomach even if it wanted to.
First of all, there's the name of the album: "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." Imagine what Mr. Aldean, who once wrote a song called "If My Truck Could Talk," must have thought when he saw that title.
Then there's the album artwork, which centers around a sepia-washed photo of Sturgill looking rough. A casual observer might mistake the portrait for the work of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. The historic look of the photograph contrasts with the rest of the album cover, a purple-and-black galaxy lit up with stars, which simultaneously calls to mind default Mac screensavers and wide shots of "Star Trek" warp drives. As a whole, the cover shows Sturgill going back to the past while moving into the future, time-traveling in both directions at once.
And then there's "Turtles All the Way Down."
The first and only single that Sturgill has released from either of his albums to date, "Turtles" is the lead-off track on "Metamodern Sounds." Sturgill supported the single with a video, one that went viral and thereby introduced his music to millions of new listeners, including myself. (I saw the video on the venerable culture site BoingBoing.net. As soon as it ended, I dove into the full album on Spotify, all of a sudden caring a great deal about country music.)
An extension of the album artwork, the video is awash in psychedelic effects that mirror four verses of mind-blowing lyrics. In the first three lines alone, Sturgill manages to namecheck Jesus, the Devil, and Buddha, the latter of whom showed the singer "a glowing light within." Jesus and the Devil are no strangers to country music, but the enlightened Siddharta doesn't get much play in Nashville. Moving into the second verse, Sturgill the outsider shows just how far-out he can get.
Look at any article on Sturgill and you're likely to come across this line from "Turtles": "There's a gateway in our minds that leads somehwere out there / Far beyond this plane / Where reptile aliens made of light / Cut you open and pull out all your pain."
The space reptile has become a meme whose significance transcends matters of fact. Popping up everywhere from the ill-fated revival of the "V" television show to tattoos by Dutch artists in my Instagram feed, the figure of the reptile alien signifies a refusal of dictated realities. It says no to biases of for-profit "news" organizations, no to the myth of a democracy by the people, no to medicines whose commercials are 30-second spots with half the air time spent documenting potentially lethal side-effects ("Those aren't the side-effects," Icke said in Cleveland. "Those are the effects."), and in the instance of "Turtles," no to a Nashville machine that crushes distinct voices into bland pulp-pop for mass consumption.
I once traveled from Chicago to Cleveland to attend a 10-hour seminar by David Icke, the conspiracy theorist who posits that the world is secretly controlled by an ancient bloodline of shapeshifting reptilian humanoids who inhabit frequencies just outside the range of human vision. According to Icke, the ranks of these devious otherdimensional beings include Hillary Clinton, Kris Kristofferson (he of the country-music supergroup The Highwaymen), and Steamboat Willie. To be clear, I don't necessarily believe that Icke's reptiles exist as such, and I imagine my ambivalence is commonplace among Icke's fans.
I'm no country-music historian, but to find something as weird as Sturgill's "reptile aliens made of light," you might have to go back to 1985, when Kristofferson and his fellow Highwaymen released their first album, which included a cover of Jimmy Webb's "The Highwayman." The song follows the path of one human soul through several lifetimes. In the final verse, Johnny Cash goes into character as a starship pilot who contemplates reincarnation while traversing the universe—but even that pales in comparison to Sturgill's extraterrestials.
While it's rare for country singers to go offworld with their lyrics, it's perhaps even rarer for them to criticize Christianity. Nashville loves the Lord. As I write this, Keith Urban holds the number-two spot on the Billboard country charts with "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16." Going back a few years, The Deseret News reported that 23 of the top 60 country songs "include(d) at least one theme of family, faith, and God." For his part, Sturgill takes a moment on "Turtles" to dismiss the Old Testament god as "an old man in the sky" and he also slams Christianity in general and the rite of communion in particular as "fairy tales of blood and wine."
That brings us to the drugs.
If country singers mention mind-altering substances at all, it's usually beer served in a red Solo cup or a Mason jar. Liquor has always gotten plenty of play as well, from Merle's memories mixed with gin to Joe Nichols' clothing-removing tequila. Finding yet another way to obliterate the established boundaries of country music—all within the span of a single three-minute song—on "Turtles" Sturgill sings, "Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT / They all changed the way I see / But love's the only thing that's ever saved my life."
While the "reptile aliens" hooked me intially, it was this line that identified Sturgill Simpson as a kindred spirit. He and I liked the same drugs, and given the nature of those drugs, we were apparently looking for the same thing.
I woke up from the anaesthesia laughing.
This was seven or eight years ago. My body was resting on a cot inside an oral surgeon's recovery room. But back then, in that moment, there was no my or body or I. Pure, capital-e Existence subsumed all things unto Itself.
Raising up slightly on the cot, I opened my eyes but couldn't see. Everything was washed-out orange—warm, and comforting. I wasn't aware of myself as a discrete entity. There was no separation between me and anything else, not even from the cot or the very air in the room. With that said, I was aware of God, and that this God was pure love—and that God and I were the same thing. I realize those last two sentences are contradictory. William James said that religious experiences are by their nature ineffable. Words fail.
This was pure bliss, unlike any drug-induced state I had previously experienced. When I was a teenager, I took around 70 LSD trips over the course of two years, along with a healthy amount of magic mushrooms and nitrous oxide. Those drugs allowed me to dip my toe in the water of higher consciousness, but this was full immersion. Thanks to an anaesthesiologist padding my recovery time, I obtained God consciousness.
Then the anaesthesia began to wear off. As I came to, the I factor returned with a vengence. In an academic, abstract way, I became aware of the existence of an outside world. I knew that I would have to join that world, leaving behind my bliss. This idea became more tangible as I visualized the physical exterior of the building. Out there on Diversey Avenue, there were other people—different people—walking around and driving cars. We were different from each other.
Having only moments earlier woken up laughing, I began to bitterly weep.
I hadn't heard of metamodernism until coming across "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music." Truth be told, I assumed that Sturgill had invented the term. "Metamodern" sounded like a good descriptor for his overall aesthetic, from the retro-furturistic album cover to sci-fi stories told in a Waylon-esque voice.
In actual fact, metamodernism is an established cultural development. As explained here and elsewhere, metamodernism—as opposed to modernism and postmodernism—is characterized by hope that sometimes approaches willful naiveté. On "Metamodern Sounds," nowhere does Sturgill sound more willfully naive than "Just Let Go."
He starts the song by declaring, "Woke up today and decided to kill my ego / It never done me no good no how." First off, God bless this guy for being quite possibly the first country singer to ever use the word "ego" this way—that is, in reference to the age-old identity construct that thwarts awareness of the interconnectedness of all things. Second, right, Sturgill—like it's that easy. You just get up one day and declare an end to the ego. Abracadabra. Later in the song Sturgill mentions his plan to "blast off to the bardo"—bardo being the Buddhist version of purgatory. Sure, as if elevated consciousness can be accessed with the same ease of boarding a commercial flight. Even the title of the song, "Just Let Go," can be read as overly simplistic, calling to mind the glib slogans common in recovery communities: "turn it over," "drop the rock," "let go and let God," and yes, "just let go."
The thing is, Sturgill knows better.
Because he's done LSD, Sturgill knows what it's like to experience oneness, to hold the secret of the universe in the palm of your hand, only for it all to slip away as the hours pass and the back pains set in. Maybe during the peak of a trip he's even scribbled notes to himself, short phrases that perfectly encapsulate an experience beyond words, only to review the notes the next day and find that they're complete gibberish. I never had the opportunity to do DMT, but I've heard people describe encounters with otherworldly beings made of light, much like Sturgill's reptiles—and I've also listened to those same people struggle to make sense of their experiences afterwards.
Apart from drugs, if Sturgill has practiced meditation, he knows what it's like to want to crawl through your skin as the mind grinds against intolerable quiet. Hell, maybe he's even had his wisdom teeth removed after receiving just a tad too much anaesthesia, and woke up in the same orange glow as I did, only to fall into the same abyss of despair.
Regardless, Sturgill knows what it's like for drugs to flip a switch only to leave you in the dark. With that in mind, "Woke up today and decided to kill my ego" has a wry knowingness to it, which sets the stage for the next song.
"It Ain't All Flowers," a six-and-a-half-minute companion piece to "Just Let Go," features a backwards guitar (again, not exactly common in country music), a primal scream that comes sailing in across your headphones left to right, and plenty of Sturgill wrestling with the angel. With the wide-eyed optimism of "Just Let Go" in the rearview, Sturgill sings, "Been getting to the bottom of the bottom / Getting to me / I've been holding up the mirror to everything I don't want to see / But it ain't all flowers / Sometimes you gotta feel the thorns / And when you play with the devil, you know you're gonna get the horns."
After two verses, the backwards guitar churns for 90 seconds over a garbled, looped refrain. It's difficult to make out, but it sounds like Sturgill repeatedly insists, "You know you gotta feel the thorns."
Then the album ends.
LSD was my drug of choice. I abhored reality and needed to constantly alter my state of mind. To this end LSD proved remarkably accomodating. You take one hit and you're good for eight hours. Sadly, there's only so much LSD a person can do, and after a couple of years I burned out. That was OK because I could still smoke marijuana around the clock, but eventually getting high meant a crap shoot between paranoia or pronounced dimwittedness. That's when I discovered that I had a tremendous capacity for domestic beer.
By the time I was 24 I was drinking from sunup to man down. Beer gave me superpowers. I could walk my little art-school self into any sports bar and make friends with the most obnoxious frat bro there. There were some nasty scrapes along the way, sure, but overall alcohol served me well. It protected me from the horrors of everyday consciousness.
Until it didn't.
After 14 years of constant drinking (the only days I didn't drink were a handful of instances when I was too hungover to leave my bed), alcohol became unreliable. I remember looking into my first pint at the bar one evening and thinking, "I wonder what's going to happen to me tonight." For one thing, my brain chemistry rewired and I couldn't drink without craving cocaine. The scrapes and close shaves became more common, like unwittingly asking undercover cops if they had any cocaine, for example. One night I came to from a blackout standing in line at a hot-dog stand on Milwaukee Avenue, screaming in a man's face. (Moments later, we became friends.)
I went into a freefall until faced with an ultimatum, at which point I grudgingly got sober. Although, if true sobriety entails serenity—calm amid the storm and all that—my high anxiety at the Metro might indicate that I've never really been sober at all.
The three songs discussed so far—"Turtles All the Way Down," "Just Let Go," and "It Ain't All Flowers—have built Sturgill a reputation as a country-music eccentric. He's that guy who sings about aliens. He's that guy who brought Eastern thought to country and western. He's that existential country singer. He's an outsider.
But again, all this is based on a scant three songs, roughly one-seventh of Sturgill's total output across two studio albums. He's dedicated nearly as many songs to his family ("Hero" on "High Top Mountain" and a bonus track on "Metamodern Sounds" called "Panbowl"), but nobody walks around saying, "You know Sturgill Simpson? He's that guy who sings about his family."
This is all by design.
After all, it was Sturgill who decided to release "Turtles" as a single. And it was Sturgill who decided on the psychedelic direction for the video, and it was Sturgill who approved a line of t-shirts with graphics that call to mind 1960s concert posters, thereby extending the trippy aesthetic. By doubling down on his outsider leanings, Sturgill has broken through to widespread acceptance. On "High Top Mountain" he sang about playing in "a smoky bar with bad sound on a dim-lit stage" and dreamed of one day "standing on some big old stage." Now he tours the world, packing legendary venues like the Metro and performing for the BBC and NPR. He's made it onto "Austin City Limits," and he even played a gig aboard the country-music mothership, the Grand Ole Opry.
Sturgill's ascendency calls to mind Kanye West's fourth single. On "Jesus Walks," Kanye surveys unfavorable odds: "So here go my single, dog / Radio needs this / They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tape / But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?" Of course, "Jesus Walks" did indeed get played—and played and played and played. Kanye stacked the deck against himself by loading a song with decidely radio-unfriendly themes of faith, only for "Jesus Walks" to become a radio hit. This feat attested to Kanye's abilities far better than your typical rap braggadocio ever could. What Sturgill has accomplished—earning his spot inside Nashville as an industry outsider—is every bit as impressive. What's more, given Sturgill's abilities and uncommon perspective, he has an opportunity to redefine country music to the same degree that Kanye redefined hip hop.
Everybody, including Shooter Jennings, talks about how much Sturgill sounds like Waylon. There is a vocal similarity, for sure, but I think the relationship between the two singers goes deeper. Waylon once famously noted, "Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars / It's been the same way for years / We need a change." When we draw the comparison, I think we're subconsciously completing a circle.
With Sturgill, change has arrived.
Things were a little better at the Metro once I left the balcony and went downstairs. The main floor was packed but I glued myself against the far wall and was able to enjoy the show for a bit. The problem was that people kept heading to the bar. Pressing my back against the wall, I attempted to avoid all contact as an endless stream of people weaved their way off and back onto the main floor, dipping their shoulders and turning themselves sideways past me, drinks held overhead or in clusters against their chests. (Allow an old man to gripe: You're at a show that might go 90 minutes, and you're going to spend 10 minutes of that time off the floor getting beer? A professional drinker would get loaded before the show, thereby avoiding extortionate concession prices, and—get this—actually spend the evening watching the band that she paid to go see.)
After a few more songs, I removed myself from the crowd and left the show early. I hope Sturgill finished his set with "Turtles," and I hope it blew the roof off the place.
That was two and half months ago. Since then, I have squirmed under the weight of writer's block, racking up thousands of words on Sturgill that went nowhere and suffering no fewer than three episodes of suicidal depression. Then one day everything clicked, just like it always does, and I wrote the final draft that you're reading now in four days of borderline mania.
(This has unfortunately become the process for all the stories I've written thus far for Someone Else. I originally intended to publish our first 12 stories in 12 consecutive weeks. We're now approaching eight stories in 12 months.)
While writing the final draft, my spirits soared. Certain phrases popped into my head while I showered, and I feverishly scribbled notes at breakfast as possibilities for narrative flow crystalized in my mind. Each of these moments constituted a ray of light shining through the cracks of quotidian reality, "the myth that we all call space and time," as Sturgill puts it. That incoming light emanates from God consciousness. It can manifest itself as the orange glow, a translucent lizard-being reaching for you from the other side, or a few days of peace pecking out a story on your laptop.
I doubt I'll ever go to another live show. But as long as there are moments when I hit a groove writing, and as long as Sturgill continues to shake loose demons on a big old stage, he and I will be in the same place.