2016 was a great, yet weird year for country and Americana albums. There was no doubt a lot of quality music released. The majority just wasn’t what we were expecting. There was also much debate over country music and defining it. But that’s what made many releases so surprising. Normally traditional acts got away from their usual sound, yet still delivered great albums. To me country music this year was about artists basically deciding the debate over country music for us. It’s no longer really about genre lines. It’s about real music that resonates with the human spirit and everyday life. When an artist goes into the studio to create art, they don’t go in with the mindset of making it fit into a box. They don’t let boxes and parameters determine their art. Their art determines the box it fits in. It simply defines itself. To me one album defined this lesson more than any other this year. That album is Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.
I’ll be honest: most of the year I didn’t think I would give Simpson album of the year. I thought for sure another artist would come along and top him. In fact I was wishing and hoping that one artist would force me to give them album of the year. It never happened. I guess I might have fallen into the trap many fell into with this album too and compared it to his previous album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That album after all was flawless from front to back. It won our 2014 Album of the Year. It will probably be viewed as a classic years from now. Yes, it’s true that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth isn’t as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But it’s not fair to judge this album in this way because this a masterpiece of itself if you at what it symbolically represents.
Before I get to that though let’s point out a crazy fact: Sturgill Simpson decided to release an album about the birth of his child as his major label debut record. An artist who just captured the world by surprise with a future classic album decided to follow it up with an album on fatherhood, some would say is quite corny on paper. No other artist would do something so crazy because they don’t want to risk their newfound position. But Sturgill Simpson is no other artist. He put all of the new fame and expectations aside and made the exact record he wanted to make. He traded the groovy psychedelic stylings for a horns section. He made a record that some wouldn’t even call country. Simpson could have easily put out another Metamodern or even High Top Mountain and given right into expectations. This would have been simple enough, but Simpson has proven every step of the way that he doesn’t take the simple way. Instead he followed his heart. The guts and confidence to do this cannot be understated. This shouldn’t have worked and yet it very well did. Not to mention, Simpson also wrote all eight original songs himself and produced the entire album himself. He did all of his on his major label debut.
Symbolically, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth represents a giant screw you to both sides of the country aisle and critics like myself. It’s an utter disregard for the expectations set by both sides and the boxes each expect artists to hop into. Simpson essentially says screw your box, I have my own. He wasn’t the only artist to basically adopt this attitude with their music. I don’t think anyone out there is more sick and tired of the genre arguments than artists. The fans and some critics seem to be the only ones who care. As I said before, I liken genre labels to aisles at the grocery store. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you label something as long as you get what you desire. Why fuss over labeling? Most music fans desire great music and if they get that they’re not going to suddenly rebuke it if the music isn’t labeled properly. They’re just happy to get what they want. Purists can cry about the lack of steel guitar and outlaw themes. Pop country fans and label executives can complain it isn’t catchy or happy enough. Meanwhile Sturgill Simpson is heading to the Grammys competing for Album of the Year and thousands of people are singing the praises of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. (Funny enough I had decided on this as album of the year before the Grammys even announced his nomination and even had a majority of it outlined)
There’s an old saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Simpson largely seem to go in a different direction with this album, he really didn’t when you get down to the songs themselves. Simpson has always written about life and the real things we can experience, specifically going off his own experiences. On High Top Mountain, the general theme is trying to make and find your way in life. Simpson sings of trying to make it in music and paying tribute to his family and wife who are behind them. On Metamodern, the general theme is finding meaning in life’s experiences and finding true love. Simpson sings of his old drug using days and the trials and tribulations of those experiences leading him to realize he just needed the love of his wife. Then you get to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, where it’s about a father welcoming a child into the world and trying to show the child the lessons they need to survive the crazy world we live in. Simpson tries to absorb the magnitude of welcoming his first-born into the world and reflecting on his own upbringing to bestow life lessons upon the child.
Simpson always has and always will continue to sing what he knows and experiences. It’s real life put into songs. That’s what every music fan wants out of their music. It’s a powerful thing when an artist can take their own life and be able to present it in a way that others can deeply connect with their own thoughts and experiences. It’s this shared human bond that tells us when the music we’re listening to is special. We don’t remember something for the genre it’s labeled. We remember something for being real and genuine. That’s exactly what Simpson delivers with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and why it’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.