Notes Concerning Sturgill Simpson
and Live Network Television
By Kevin Broughton
Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. – Josey Wales
Nashville, it ain’t like he didn’t warn you. And by summer’s end Sturgill Simpson had had a bellyful. Of you, and your suits, and your black little money-grubbing hearts. One of your favored kingmakers, some Mary named “Bobby Bones,” summed up your indifference to actual art by referring to him as Sturgis Simpson. To be fair, it was Garden & Gun’s cowardly betrayal of a dying Merle Haggard that finally set him off, but his point was unambiguous: I don’t need you. Keep promoting talentless hacks who can’t write songs and need machines to get their voices barely past the level of “vomit-inducing.” I’m done with you.
If country music is to be saved – as opposed to burned down and rebuilt somewhere far away from Music Row’s satanic pit – Sturgill’s blistering performance on Saturday Night Live will be seen as the turning point.
Most folks who’ve worn out A Sailor’s Guide to Earth probably anticipated the songs he’d pick to introduce himself to the nation on such a prestigious platform. December’s pleasant surprise of two Grammy nominations had millions asking, “Who is Sturgill (as opposed to Sturgis) Simpson?”
“Keep it Between the Lines” was a perfect how-do-you-do. On a concept album – in the form of a love letter to his newborn son – full of intensity, it’s a cut featuring wry advice that induces smiles. Pause the DVR quickly enough and you’ll see the hint of a smile from the man himself; but overall it was a warmup.
The real heat came with “Call to Arms.” Fitting, as Simpson used it as the show-closer throughout his recent tour. And for close to five minutes, the SNL stage positively burned. The band started fast. And the tune only built in intensity by the moment – by the measure, really – in a way you couldn’t have imagined and still might not believe after re-watching several times. Chances are you’re still shaking your head. If anyone’s seen a more hair-raising musical experience on live television, speak up.
It ended with a power-slammed guitar, to match an upturned organ stage right. Was there a semblance of a grin? Look closely:
That face? It’s saying, “Get some. Who’s next?”
And Nashville, he’s looking at you. You brought this on yourself, Music Row. Maybe you’ll keep promoting a 40-year-old in painted-on jeans who thrusts his junk on stage and sings about finger banging drunk girls in his truck. Or tatted-up white trash clowns that duet with their Backstreet Boyfriends. But only for a short while.
Because Sturgill Simpson judged you on August 29, 2016, and you were found wanting: Guilty of crimes against art, integrity, and musical humanity. There will be no phone call from the governor with a last minute reprieve. Your death will be fittingly slow, because on January 14, 2017, judge became executioner at 30 Rockefeller Center and with two songs, started the gradual drip of a fatal drug cocktail.
Twenty years ago Todd Snider famously quipped – and you can find it on the occasional T-shirt – “In a perfect world, Steve Earle would run Nashville.”