Is Country Music Ready for Sturgill Simpson?

Sturgill Simpson at a recent show in Houston
Sturgill Simpson at a recent show in Houston
Photo by Jason Wolter

So the big new noise in the increasingly noisy -- or static-y -- genre known as Americana is this Kentucky guy Sturgill Simpson. With 2014 appearances on Letterman and Conan and a first-ever Grammy nomination for his sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson has been branded (not by him, but by those who take it upon themselves to brand such things) as a new hope for country music, a Waylon/Outlaw Movement throwback, a loophole through which we can crawl back toward the Holy Grail: legitimate, old-school country music that sounds like, well, country music rather than background noise at a Young Republicans meeting.

If you live in Houston and remember the old Whiskey Wednesdays at Mango's and later at Fitz, you probably thought young Robert Ellis would eventually fulfill this role, but, well, he's gone in another artistic direction.

Personally, Lonesome, Onry and Mean is all for Mr. Simpson getting all the props and kudos he can gather while his star is hot. It's hard to see how this could be a bad thing in the current mainstream country radio climate, where dipsticks like Jason Aldean are foisted on us like junk bonds or, even worse, a Texas-country mainstream that thinks Josh Abbott, Earle Tibbles and Mark McKinney belong in the same sentence with Bob Wills or Lefty Frizzell. We've all seen those video mashups of country lyrics that make the whole genre seem like it has a sub-kindergarten I.Q., so seeing guys like Simspon with real songs and genuine talent get some notice is heartening.

REWIND: Sturgill Simpson at Fitzgerald's, 11/16/2014

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Understand, though, it's not all positives with this Simpson phenomenon. Regarding his sold-out show at Fitzgerald's recently, one female acquaintance of LOM's who is a serious concert rat says she "just thought the music was fine but nothing particularly special." But her big gripe was Simpson's audience.

"It was at least 80 percent guys, and almost all of them had that flannel lumbersexual look," she explained. "I swear the guy I was standing near, who I overheard say he was from Beaumont, hadn't had a bath in a week. I almost gagged several times and finally I just left before it was over.

"If that's his audience, I don't think most women are going to dig that," she added. "I don't think I'll go back to see him again unless he comes out with some amazing album or something that changes things."

Whatever the makeup of Simpson's crowd, he is only one example of artists leading a movement back toward something that sounds more like Hank than Jerry Jeff, more like Willie than Florida-Georgia Line. Below are five artists who probably deserve just as much notice, ink and love as Simpson is getting these days. Wonder if any of them have the juice to go all the way and escape the Americana ghetto and commandeer the mainstream?

ROD MELANCON Only 25, this Louisiana transplant fell in with like-minded companions in L.A. and dropped a rock-solid album, Parish Lines, earlier this year. Filled with down-to-earth story songs that reflect his south Louisiana upbringing, Melancon has a big, believable voice and the chiseled good looks to be a Nashville hat act if he was bent like that. Fortunately, he's not.

With Dwight Yoakam sideman Brian Whelan producing and picking, there isn't a false note or poor choice on Parish Lines. Where Melancon probably dropped the ball was in not having a road band ready to go hand-to-hand with the rest of the Americana wannabes. Hopefully in 2015 he remedies that situation, gets wider exposure, and puts a little edge on. (Whelan will drop his own album in 2015, or he would be on this list too.)

JIMBO MATHUS LOM will just go on and say it here, now: Jimbo Mathus makes better records than Sturgill Simpson. This is not a put-down of Simpson, it's just a fact that Mathus has been at this way longer and by almost any measure has one of the broader streaks of creative genius in Americana today.

Mathus can pick with anybody, but two factors mitigate against him. First, he doesn't look the part of any mainstream-country singer of the last 50 years. No, Mathus looks like your cool old hippie uncle who just never caved in. This is a good thing; the Powers That Be could try every hat in Nashville on this guy and he'd still look like the dangerous, drug-fueled Mississippi hillbilly he is.

Secondly, while Mathus's material qualifies as "country" in the broad sense, he also has huge streaks of soul and rock and roll running through his artistic circuits. Still, in a fair world, blah blah blah, Jimbo Mathus would be on country radio and Jason Aldean would be fixing flat tires or working on a drilling rig.

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DOUG SEEGERS If you want an easy reference point for virtually anonymous 63-year old Doug Seegers, think Austin's James Hand. Like Hand, Seegers has spent years battling the demons, many of those years living on the mean streets of Nashville and, like Hand, Seegers has that classic-country voice and pens songs that would have been more radio-friendly in the '60s than today. Seegers has spent a huge chunk of his adult life living the role of the singer in Kinky Friedman's epic Nashvegas tragedy, "Nashville Casualty and Life," and for him to be getting the recognition he has in 2014 can only be a good sign for lovers of underdogs and strays.

Is Country Music Ready for Sturgill Simpson?

JOHN FULLBRIGHT An Okie still on the south side of 30, Fullbright has already been nominated for one Grammy and it's doubtful that will be his final one. Fullbright's inner ear separates him from the pack; his melodies and lyrics are inventive, thoughtful, and gripping, his performances are full of grit and determination, and it doesn't hurt that he's so intense when he's performing it looks like the top of his head may explode.

Fullbright leans into it hard every time. If there's another Willie Nelson out there, Fullbright just may be the guy, even though his style is more a country-pop-blues concoction. Oh, that sounds like Willie, huh? The fact is, Fullbright, like Willie, may be just too damned good and too damned smart for the brains who run Nashville.

PARKER MILSAP If anyone rivaled Simpson for buzz and exposure in 2014, it's fresh-faced, earnest young Okie Parker Milsap. Milsap doesn't have the classic country sound that is Simpson's bread-and-butter; he's folky (no drums in his stage band) and smartly wordy; like Fullbright, Milsap makes every syllable count, even if there are a lot of them.

LOM will admit that Milsap is not everyday listening fare around the house, mostly due to some vocal tics that don't sit quite right with our ear. But give the guy credit: he's young, good-looking, quite personable and believable, and probably only going to get better, especially after some ladies do a bit of damage to his ego. No one can deny his effort or sincerity. If mainstream stardom comes to Milsap, then it's a whole new encouraging ball game again. Until then, it's just Americana.


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