Whatever his other achievements have been or may be, Sturgill Simpson will probably forever be remembered by Music Row insiders for the stunt he pulled during the 2017 CMA Awards show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
In the interim, let’s raise a glass to the intrepid troubadour on his 41st birthday (Saturday, June 8).
Simpson emerged quietly on the country music scene without being extruded through the usual star-making machinery. In fact, he was guesting on A Prairie Home Companion before many on Music Row ever heard of him.
A native of eastern Kentucky, Simpson began his musical career in Oregon in the early 2000s. After he moved to Utah, where he worked full-time for Union Pacific Railroad, he continued playing the amateur circuits around Salt Lake City.
He moved to Nashville in 2012, with an eye on making music his profession, and the following year released on his own label the album High Top Mountain. Although it yielded no chart singles, it did harvest considerable critical praise. Simpson wrote 10 of the 12 songs on the album.
In 2014, he followed High Top Mountain with a second DIY collection, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (a cheeky reference to Ray Charles’ 1962 classic, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music). A cut from the album, “Turtles All the Way Down,” netted Simpson the song of the year trophy at the 2015 Americana Music Awards, where he had earlier been voted top emerging artist.
Atlantic Records signed Simpson and in 2016 released his A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, all the songs on which, save one, Simpson wrote. The album earned him Grammy nominations for album of the year and best country album, the latter of which he won.
Which brings us to Simpson’s CMA stunt.
Feeling that a Grammy win for best country album should at least garner him an invitation to the 2017 awards gala, Simpson was understandably piqued when no invitation arrived.
So on the same night and at the same time other stars were inside Bridgestone Arena, Simpson set up shop on the plaza outside with his guitar, amplifier and open guitar case for tips. To spread his message, he broadcast about 35 minutes of his singing and talking with passersby on Facebook Live.
Naturally, enough, he displayed protests signs as well, one of which read, “Struggling country singer… Anything helps (all donations go to the ACLU). God Bless America.”
Apart from creating a footnote to music history, Simpson also reportedly raked in $13 for the American Civil Liberties Union. Waylon Jennings, the old “outlaw” to whose vocal style Simpson’s is often compared, would have been proud.