He’s generally a little more subtle about how he feels about the wretched state of the country-music industry, but Sturgill Simpson sure set the tiny corner of the Internet occupied by country-music fans on fire this week. In a statement posted to Simpson’s Facebook page, the modern-day outlaw ripped the Academy of Country Music to shreds for descending like the vultures they are and exploiting the legacy of Merle Haggard.
Many years back, much like Willie and Waylon had years before, Merle Haggard said, "Fuck this town. I'm moving." and he left Nashville.
According to my sources, it was right after a record executive told him that "Kern River" was a bad song. In the last chapter of his career and his life, Nashville wouldn't call, play, or touch him. He felt forgotten and tossed aside. I always got a sense that he wanted one last hit..one last proper victory lap of his own, and we all know deserved it. Yet it never came. And now he's gone.
Im [sic] writing this because I want to go on record and say I find it utterly disgusting the way everybody on Music Row is coming up with any reason they can to hitch their wagon to his name while knowing full and damn well what he thought about them. If the ACM wants to actually celebrate the legacy and music of Merle Haggard, they should drop all the formulaic cannon fodder bullshit they've been pumping down rural America's throat for the last 30 years along with all the high school pageantry, meat parade award show bullshit and start dedicating their programs to more actual Country Music.
Hoo, boy. It’s almost hard to figure out where to start on this statement, which rambled on for a few more paragraphs before ending with Simpson echoing Haggard’s own statement from “many years back.” See, Sturgill was livid because the Academy of Country Music recently announced the inaugural Merle Haggard Spirit Award, which would be given to country music’s “ most intrepid artists” for going against the Nashville grain. We’ll get to the deep irony in that award a little while later.
Shortly after Simpson’s rant started to go viral on Facebook, it was announced that Miranda Lambert would be the Merle Haggard Spirit Award’s first recipient. There is no finer artist on this planet right now to be honored with an award that bears the name of The Hag. It is well-established that Miranda Lambert is and will forever be be one of country’s most prominent trailblazers — literally no one is debating whether or not that is true. But this isn't about Miranda, and it never was — something Simpson was quick to acknowledge when amending his original post after learning she had won.
Simpson’s anger is pointedly directed at an industry that has been more than happy to capitalize on its historic past while refusing to acknowledge artists who carry on the traditions of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and the rest of the genre’s heroes. They’ll sell us Johnny Cash T-shirts and put on tribute concerts for Guy Clark, but nearly have to be held at gunpoint (hypothetically, of course) to give the genre’s most dedicated fans — the ones who’ve been listening to this stuff for decades — anything to listen to on the radio.
At the Dallas Observer, Music Editor Jeff Gage notes that the Academy of Country Music bestowed Haggard with more than 20 honors during his life, a number that would be remarkable until you consider that Haggard charted more than 100 songs throughout his career (38 of them No. 1s) and released dozens of albums over the years, including a release in 2015. It’s also worth noting that five of those 20 awards were lifetime achievement-type honors, not wins for albums or songs.
And in fact, the Academy of Country Music went from 1982 until 1995, when they awarded him the Pioneer Award, without giving The Hag a single trophy. Never mind the fact that Haggard’s cover of “Pancho & Lefty” was released in 1983, the stunning duet with Janie Fricke “A Place to Fall Apart” in 1984, and who could forget “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” in 1987? All of these tracks shot to No. 1 and are beloved by fans to this day, yet were somehow not worthy of awards from the Academy of Country Music? Nonsense. Let us also not forget the Academy’s snubbing of 2015’s Django & Jimmie, the final album Haggard recorded before his death.
The irony of the Academy of Country Music attempting to recognize country’s “trailblazers” would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Merle Haggard was a trailblazer despite organizations like these, not because of them. When he threw down and said “I’m moving,” it wasn’t because he was thrilled at how he’d been treated in Nashville. He was disgusted with the same stuff we’re complaining about now. If it’s all right for Merle Haggard to be angry at Nashville, why isn’t it okay for Sturgill Simpson to be equally indignant?
The counter-argument to Simpson’s point seems to be that he shouldn’t rail against the mainstream when he so deliberately avoided being a part of it, and maybe that’s true. But considering that Simpson has been hailed as the second coming of country Jesus and scored a No. 1 country record, he seems pretty qualified to comment on the matter.
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At The Tennessean, Nate Rau also makes the very salient point that Simpson shouldn’t be so quick to forget the folks in Nashville who did help him on the way up, like superproducer Dave Cobb, indie distributors Thirty Tigers and high-powered talent manager Marc Dottore. But we all know that Simpson isn’t talking about “that Nashville,” the one full of hard-working songwriters, artists, and producers who fly thoroughly under the national radar.
He’s talking about the Nashville we’re all familiar with — Big Machine Records, the Academy of Country Music and the rest of the big-money cronies who set the tone and make the decisions. The folks who ignore the artists in that other Nashville until they can make money off of their sound. It’s not like Sturgill Simpson didn’t want to head over to Big Machine and ask them for a big ol’ pile of money to release Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, he just knew they’d laugh him right out of their big fancy offices.
But no matter how mad Simpson or whoever else is about the Academy of Country Music’s exploitation of Merle Haggard, this award still exists, and Nashville probably isn’t ever going to get its act together. They’re still going to throw up those tearjerking montages of The Hag at next year's ACM Awards while honoring songs that would make the man himself turn over in his grave. And if there has to be a winner for this pitiful pander, at least it’s Miranda Lambert.