Essential Review – Tyminski’s ‘Southern Gothic’

Sometimes it can take years for people to recognize an impactful piece of music. This can happen because the music is by an artist that isn’t well-known or the music is so different that it takes the genre and audience years to catch up. I fully believe this when it comes to Tyminski’s Southern Gothic album he released last year. When it becomes more common place for electronic elements and country to be fused together, people will look back and point to this album as a pioneering effort in electronic country. Dan Tyminski was the perfect artist for an album like this one with his extensive bluegrass experience and being the voice behind the hit “Hey Brother.” Southern Gothic may not be a perfect album, but it shows us just how excellent electronic country can sound.

The album’s title track opens and right away Tyminski delivers one of the best tracks on the album. It’s a scathing, cynical and dark look at the average small town in America. What were once regarded as little Mayberry-like towns with hard-working people is now full of sin and hypocrites. I particularly enjoy how the song shows the dissonance of how the town full of God-fearing people and churches on every corner demonstrate themselves to be anything but Christian-like. The production on this song is so spot on, perfectly creating the haunting, creepy vibe that lulls over the town being described in the song (credit to producer Jesse Frasure). This song is such a refreshingly real look at really the state of small town America right now, exposing the flaws and problems that plague modern society that many seemingly don’t want to acknowledge.

“Breathing Fire” is your “I don’t give a shit anymore” anthem. It’s about being fed up of turning the other cheek and just raising hell instead. It’s fun and catchy, making it impossible to not bob your head along with the beat. The next song “Gone” is about the loss of small town love. While love leaves the small town, the man is left to be haunted by her memories and wondering what if. I enjoy the urgency Tyminski shows in his voice throughout, showing the passion and heartbreak of a broken man well. The bouncy and infectious “Temporary Love” just grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go. It’s one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in recent memory in country music. Throughout the song the man decries one-night stands and his short-lived relationships, blaming both himself and the intoxication of quick sex. He’s ready for something more permanent and meaningful, but can’t pull himself away to find it. The rhythmic clapping with the interludes of drum machines makes this song so damn danceable, an element that gets under-looked in the genre.

Tyminski follows this with another catchy song in “Perfect Poison.” It could easily serve as the song about the short-term and hook-up relationships mentioned in “Temporary Love.” The opening of the chorus, “You’re no good for me/Like a methamphetamine”, is delivered perfectly by Tyminski and the song just sounds like the chaos of the relationship. “Devil is Downtown” deals with the access of opioids in small town America. It goes into detail of how easy it can be to get a quick hit from the drug dealer downtown and how easy it is to fall into the trap of drugs. It’s a dark, but necessary glimpse into something that is a real problem.

“Hollow Hallelujah” is one of the more underrated moments on the album. I interpret the song to be about being afraid to get help and look for answers, instead just crawling on your own and wandering in your own darkness. The song’s ultimate message is it’s okay to ask for that help and that God and friends are there to help you through. This song demonstrates the importance of showing the light in a dark song, as it provides the contrast necessary to drive home the message. The Celctic-folk influenced “Good For Your Soul” gets back to the fun side of the album. It’s an enjoyable ditty about a man pleading he’s good for his woman and desiring to remain with her wherever she goes. “Wailing Wall” follows a similar line. The heavy bass of the drums gives the song a swaggering, pounding tone that sticks with you.

“Haunted Heart” puts me in the mind of one of my favorite books, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It reminds me of the part of the story where it reaches the sweaty and dark jungle. It conveys a sense of urgency, fear and loneliness, just like the heartbroken man described in this song. Tyminski reflects upon his love of music being handed down to him by his family on “Bloodline.” It’s a nice homage to where and who he’s come from, showing how it went from a hobby to a passion for him. For those who dismiss this album for its sound, they miss out on the many meaningful songs like this one.

Tyminski addresses the end of a relationship on “Wanted.” He’s ready to walk out the door and be gone for good, knowing both him and his woman got what they wanted in the relationship. She got his love for a while and he leaves, as he knew what the relationship was destined for from the beginning. It’s a solid track, albeit maybe unnecessary with the album run time going a bit too long for my liking. The album closes out with the ominous sounding “Numb.” It’s one of the rawest moments on the album, as a man realizes he can’t recapture the old feelings of a past love. He feels nothing about her, as the pain of the fallout has made him empty inside from his inability to let it go. In an album full of dark moments, this is perhaps the darkest as it shows a window to the inside of the loneliest type of heartbreak imaginable.

Tyminski’s creativity and innovation is on full display on Southern Gothic. As I said this isn’t a perfect album, but its brilliant moments outshine the few flaws. A big credit should be given to Jesse Frasure, who produced the album and helped write many of the songs. He’s helped introduce many new wrinkles in fusion country and this is perhaps his best work so far, capturing the dark and chaotic nature of the songs throughout this album. I hope this pairing will continue to work together and create more projects in the future. Tyminski is the one who should lead this electronic country sound and demonstrate its potential to the rest of the genre. But regardless of future plans, Tyminski’s Southern Gothic is without a doubt an essential album in the realm of fusion country.

Album’s Top Highlights: Southern Gothic, Temporary Love, Hollow Hallelujah, Bloodline, Breathing Fire, Perfect Poison, Numb, Devil is Downtown


Producer: Jesse Frasure

Songwriters: Dan Tyminski, Jesse Frasure, Josh Kear, Will Weatherly, Cary Barlowe, Nick Bailey, Kyle Fishman, Paul Moak, Ashley Monroe, Amy Wadge, Sarah Buxton, Tofer Brown, Andrew Dorff, Ryan Ogren

 

Classic Review – Eric Church’s ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

On the night of the 2015 CMA Awards everybody expected the biggest news of the night to be Eric Church dropping his surprise new album Mr. Misunderstood. After all he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and it was one of the better-kept secret album releases in recent memory. But then of course Chris Stapleton had his superstar making performance and the rest is history. I will always be thrilled about that performance by Stapleton, but at the same time I will always be a little disappointed that Mr. Misunderstood didn’t get the recognition it truly deserved. To this point it’s arguably the best album from Church that spawned multiple hits and one of the most memorable albums from this era of largely forgettable music.

The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it.

The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup. It also appears to be a bit of a precursor to his follow-up album Desperate Man.

“Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song. There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman. It’s a true songwriting gem that exemplifies storytelling at it’s best.

One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way.

One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of overly pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free”). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song and releasing it as a single, even if it unsurprisingly didn’t get embraced by radio.

“Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album.

While I love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” It’s one of the best songs he’s ever released (which Church co-wrote with fellow fusion country artist Jeff Hyde). “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When I first wrote about this album, I said this had to be a single and it could be one of his biggest hits. I’m glad to be right, as this song went on to be a big #1 hit for Church.

Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. This album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.

Mr. Misunderstood is a timeless work of music that will be remembered fondly by fans for years to come for its amazing quality and ability to break through the molasses of cookie-cutter music that cluttered mainstream country music. This is all thanks to the growth and maturity shown by Church on this album, a milestone moment in a career that looks to last for several years to come. It’s easy to dub this album a Fusion Country Classic.

Album’s Top Highlights: Record Year, Knives of New Orleans, Kill A Word, Mr. Misunderstood, Mistress Named Music, Chattanooga Lucy


Producer: Jay Joyce

Songwriters: Eric Church, Casey Beathard, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Travis Meadows, Jeremy Spillman, Luke Dick, Monty Criswell

Essential Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

While much of rock languishes in today’s music world, Blackberry Smoke is thriving. The southern rock/country rock group has yet to put out a bad album and continue to relentlessly tour across the country putting on some of the best live shows you can see. While all of their albums are enjoyable, it’s their 2016 album Like An Arrow that is the true gem of their catalog so far. It was their second album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and rightly racked up a lot of critical acclaim. If you’re a fan of fusion country, this is an essential album to hear.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about going through the ups and downs of life. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the boss man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it thanks to the great delivery by Starr.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? The late, great Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It felt like this was a special passing of the torch moment between one of the best southern rock groups from yesteryear and arguably the best southern rock group today. To me Like An Arrow is going to be one of the moments that ultimately define the excellent legacy being set by Blackberry Smoke.

Album’s Top Highlights: Waiting For The Thunder, Workin’ for a Workin’ Man, Like an Arrow, The Good Life, Sunrise in Texas, Free on the Wing


Producer: Blackberry Smoke

Songwriters: Charlie Starr, Travis Meadows, Paul Jackson, Brandon Still, Richard Turner, Brit Turner, Michael Tolcher

Classic Review – The Mavericks’ ‘In Time’

I think you could make the argument that no band embodies the fusion country moniker better than The Mavericks. The pioneering group came together in 1989 in Miami, Florida and throughout the 90s racked up acclaim and awards. In 2003 they broke up and nine years later reunited, leading to their comeback album In Time. Throughout all of this, The Mavericks pushed the envelope better than almost everyone in the genre. The group combines classic country with a variety of sounds, most notably Tex-Mex, Latin, rock and soul influences. The band at the time of their comeback was made up of frontman Raul Malo, guitarist Eddie Perez, bass guitarist Robert Reynolds, keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden and drummer Paul Deakin. In 2013 many in country music focused on another comeback album and the debut of another prominent fusion country artist, but it was The Mavericks who delivered what I believe to be the best of the year and an album for the ages with In Time.

The album opens with the jovial-spirited “Back In Your Arms Again.” The song revolves around the reunion of old lovers who swore they would never want each other again. Prominent mariachi horns accompany the song throughout giving it a decidedly latin flavor. It’s pretty much the perfect song to open a comeback album and a quick reminder of the band’s creative style. “Lies” is about a man never coming to grips with the lies his woman tells him, as he just can’t bring himself to shake her hold on him. This appropriately segues into “Born To Be Blue,” a man who feels he’s forever going to be heartbroken because he can’t win over the woman he loves. Malo’s smooth as silk voice is one of the best in the business and it’s a song like this where you really feel this because he adds so much emotion to the lyrics. The mashup of guitars and accordion do a great job of setting the tone too.

There are many fantastic songs on this album, but the gem and perhaps the best song The Mavericks have ever recorded is “Come Unto Me.” The band is perfectly in sync on this song. The lyrics are gripping and delivered with a high level of gravitas from Malo (who also solely wrote the song). The instrumentation comes together to make an infectious, soulful, Tex-Mex sound that just sticks with you. On the digital version of this album there’s even a Spanish version of the song as a bonus track, which I found to be a cool extra and demonstration of how great music is great no matter the language.

The mournful “In Another’s Arms” shows the group can shine just as bright on the quieter moments on the album. The song is about a man reflecting on the love not lost between him and his ex, but now they each rest in arms of another lover. Despite this love, they can never be the ones in each other’s arms. I love the way Malo achingly delivers the line, “If only I’d have known/That the love that lingers on/Still makes the world go ’round.” It really adds a lot of heart to the song and gives it the level of importance needed to resonate with the listener. “Fall Apart” is about the age-old realization that it’s better to have loved and lost it, than to have never experienced that love at all. It’s about taking heartache and the memories of being in love and turning it into new love. It’s also yet another song on this album that is immediately infectious and catchy.

A blast of horns introduce “All Over Again,” which is about an old lover continually turning up to break your heart over and over again. While this topic is nothing new in country music or any genre of music, it’s amazing how Malo and company are able to so perfectly capture the emotions of the situation (regret, denial, uncertainty, trying to change). “Forgive Me” is a slow-waltz heartache tune about coming to grips with your heartache. The song has a somber, yet dreamy feel, which makes you picture a sad man sitting at the end of a dark bar trying to repair the shattered pieces of his heart. The accordion-laden “Amsterdam Moon” is a sort of wistful song about how the moon is always there to guide through the night. But tonight a man decides he’s going to stay up to watch her instead, paying her back for all of the nights she’s watched over him.

The Mavericks delve into heartbreak again on “That’s Not My Name.” The song seemingly implies it’s about a man being in denial over being alone after finding out his woman ran around on him and now coming off as the “biggest fool in town.” The upbeat and fun “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight” is about…well sex. It’s about the constant cat and mouse game of making love and breaking up over and over. But as long as there’s sex, both sides will keep playing the game. The song has more of a jazzy influence, with the multiple horns. This gives it a night on the town type feel, which suits the lyrics well.

“Dance In the Moonlight” is a fun love song that makes you want to dance in the moonlight of course. This is another song that wears it’s Tex-Mex influences on its sleeve and makes me wonder why more country artists don’t explore this in their music. The album closes out with “(Call Me) When You Get To Heaven,” a sobering song about reuniting with a loved one when you get to heaven. While there a lot of fun moments on this album, don’t overlook this closing song, as it’s perhaps the best sad song from The Mavericks. The eery organ play sets the tone and Malo’s voice carries the emotion needed to drive across the soberness of this song.

While this album runs a bit longer than I like albums to run, the quality on In Time is simply overwhelming. Each song on this album packs a punch in some way and utilizes all of the elements at its disposal. You won’t find many voices better than Raul Malo, who is just a natural talent that was meant to sing. This man could sing the phone book and make it sound amazing. The rest of the band though just goes together so well too. Their ability to mash together so many different sounds can’t be understated, as most bands could not pull off this vision and level of creativity. In Time is one of the best demonstrations you can hear of how to make country music fresh, exciting and immediately engaging.

Album’s Top Highlights: Come Unto Me, As Long As There’s Loving Tonight, Born To Be Blue, Back In Your Arms Again, Dance in the Moonlight, In Another’s Arms


Producers: Niko Bolas & Raul Malo

Songwriters: Raul Malo, Eddie Perez, Gary Nicholson, Seth Walker, Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero, James House, Liz Rodrigues, Wally Wilson, Alan Miller

Essential Review – Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives’ ‘Way Out West’

You can’t truly appreciate the sheer talent of a band until you see them live. I’ve had this proven to me time and time again, most recently with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. I can definitively say they put on one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Marty, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Chris Scruggs are each outstanding, whether they’re playing an instrument or stepping behind the mic to sing. I couldn’t have been more impressed by a band in a live setting. Last year they also impressed with their newest album Way Out West, an album I’ve seen many appropriately describe as cinematic. It was one of the best of 2017 and without a doubt deserves a spot in Fusion Country Classics & Essentials.

Way Out West is a true album, as each song is directly connected with each other. The opening songs “Desert Prayer, Pt. I” and “Mojave” set the scene for listeners and prepares us on a trippy exploration through the desert and the American west. On the latter we get our first tastes of surf-rock tinged guitar licks from Vaughan. The mood is perfectly set as we hear the first vocals from Stuart on “Lost on the Desert.” It’s the story of a man arrested for stealing a lot of money, which he hides out in the desert. Once he’s able to escape the hands of the law, he heads for the spot he hid the money. But the heat starts playing tricks on him and he can’t find the money or any water, as “the devil” had tricked him and left him to die in the desert. This song is such a prime example of vivid storytelling, from the descriptive lyrics to the mood set by the instruments.

The album’s title track takes us on a different kind of trip, a drug-induced one. It tells the tales of different instances a man take drugs and the experiences he feels. At the end Stuart tells us of the beauty of the American west, but if you ever go on a trip, don’t do drugs to take that trip. The psychedelic feel of the song sucks you right in and the beautiful harmonies make for a perfect close to the song. “El Fantasma del Toro” is probably my favorite instrumental on the album, in large part thanks to the great guitar work and the Mexican-flavored influences. The song puts me in mind of standing in the middle of a desert, the air dry, as I watch the steam rise in the distance while the sun beats down overhead. It’s the ideal atmospheric song for the American west.

“Old Mexico” is another gem that clicks upon first listen. It tells another tale of a criminal on the run, this time trying to make his way to Mexico to a beautiful señorita and more importantly freedom from a life in jail in the United States. The band’s harmonizing to close out this song is incredible and really adds an explanation point (it was even better live). “Time Don’t Wait” is really catchy, as the hook is instantly memorable. The band delivers another great instrumental in “Quicksand” that takes you right into their cover of Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special.” The song fits great into the band’s wheelhouse of foot-tapping, honky-tonk tunes and fits well within this album. “Torpedo” is another song that has some cool 60s, surf-rock influence that would have fit in nicely next to the Beach Boys music in their heyday. Not many bands could get away with the amount of instrumentals as there are on this album, but most bands aren’t as talented as Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Plus all of the instrumentals are just fantastic, a credit to how the tight this band is and producer Mike Campbell.

The somber-toned “Please Don’t Say Goodbye” is a heartbreak tune that sees a man lamenting to his woman to not walk out the door. The backing vocals from the band on this are the real secret sauce behind this song, as it adds levity and almost a haunting feel to the song. “Whole Lotta Highway” is the most traditional moment on the album, as it’s your classic truck-driving country song. It makes you want to hit the road and have an adventure. “Desert Prayer, Pt. II” features some soulful crooning from the band that segues right into “Wait for the Morning” and “Way Out West (Reprise).” The former has a reflective tone, as it’s a bring it on home moment after seeing the world and taking in the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Meanwhile the latter puts a fitting cap on the end of an album that feels more like an immersive movie experience.

Many artists in the latter stages of their career rest on their laurels and become complacent. But that’s certainly not the case for Marty Stuart. He’s as vibrant and energetic as any young artists today. More importantly he’s still pushing the creative boundaries to create new and exciting music for new and old generations alike. Way Out West is a shining landmark in his illustrious career and the careers of his Fabulous Superlatives. Stuart and his band revive an old sound and theme and breathe brand new life into it. If only more artists could innovate and follow the lead of this talented group. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives and Way Out West are absolutely essential listening.

Album’s Top Highlights: Old Mexico, El Fantasma del Toro, Lost on the Desert, Time Don’t Wait, Torpedo, Way Out West


Producer: Mike Campbell 

Songwriters: Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan, Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs, Benny Goodman, Brian Glenn Nolf

Classic Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’

As more time passes, the impact of this album continues to grow. Who would have thought a sophomore release from a relatively unknown independent artist from Kentucky in 2014 would change the country music landscape? The release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music would not only launch the career of Sturgill Simpson, but also launched the career of Chris Stapleton. It was one of the main inspirations behind his debut album Traveller and now Stapleton is one of the biggest artists in all of music. These two artists rise to the top helped many other artists rise to the top and what I dub fusion country music has taken on a life of its own. This blog wouldn’t be here without Sturgill Simpson, so it’s only appropriate that the very first induction into Fusion Country Classics & Essentials is Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

The voice of Sturgill’s late grandfather introduces you into the album’s leading track “Turtles All The Way Down.” It’s the perfect song to lead off the album because it tells you right away you’re listening to a very different, but special country album. The psychedelic production tinges and drug-fueled lyrics are what hook you in and what many love to focus on. But it’s the message of enduring love that the song drives across that lasts with you. That’s the central theme of the album and what people who actually listen to it will take from the album. “Life of Sin” is a rambunctious song about Simpson’s past life of drugs and sin that drove his life. It wasn’t a great life, but it was his life and he owns it. Then you have “Living The Dream,” which has become a crowd favorite at live shows and one of Simpson’s best songs. The song revolves around balancing the pursuit of your dreams, but also needing to find work. A job doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning, but a dream sure does. The problem is life not wanting to work as you planned, as Sturgill likens it to “making a big old pot of coffee when you ain’t got no cream.”

“Voices” is about being driven crazy by all of the different voices you hear in your life. From a family member who knows best to the perfect life that gets sold to you on television by media and celebrities, everybody is trying to tell you how to run your life. It’s a never-ending bullshit loop. Sturgill takes a classic country approach on his cover of Buford Abner’s “Long White Line,” as it’s about hitting the road to clear your mind of the fresh heartbreak just dropped on your lap. The song’s common refrain, “tell ’em I’m somewhere looking for the end of that long white line,” implies more than just chasing the white lines of the highway, at least in the context of this album. I feel like a lot of people miss this possible double entendre, which adds even more to the song.

The album’s biggest curveball might be Simpson’s cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise,” a late 80s, new wave song that Sturgill turns into a heartfelt love ballad. Many thought this was a strange choice, but after you get to know Simpson you figure out this is par for the course for him. It’s such a perfect fit for this album though and will go down as one of the hidden gems of Simpson’s career. The album’s shortest track “A Little Light” sees Simpson walking towards the light of love and seeing the errors of his past life of sin and debauchery. This theme continues on “Just Let Go,” where Simpson lets all of the demons of drugs, society’s voices and even his own ego fade from his mind. He’s learned he can just it all go and embrace what he’s hammered on throughout the album and that is the love in his life.

This leads to reminiscing on one last trip through his days of drugs on “It Ain’t All Flowers.” It’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music at it’s most trippy, psychedelic and perhaps standout moment. The whole album builds to this climax of emotions and sounds, as Simpson howls his way through the song. It’s also Simpson’s most experimental and exploratory moment of his career, bringing sounds that you never hear in country songs. It should have been the indicator for listeners that Simpson would not be sticking to their script they had in mind for him. Some got that memo, while others didn’t. The true end of the album is the bonus track, “Panbowl.” It’s a reflecting, traditional song where Simpson wishes he could go back to the days of his youth when life wasn’t so complicated. At the same time it serves as a thank you to his family and the great moments they gave him, while going back to where this album begins with his grandfather introducing us to the record.

While it’s only been four years since the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, we can already point to this album as one of the most important country albums of the 2010’s. This album proved country music could evolve without sacrificing its soul. It also proved to artists that you should take risks and inspired them to pursue their sound. You don’t need a major label to make a cultural impact, which is a message that is continuing to spread throughout all genres of music. If the music is truly great enough, people will eventually find it. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the stellar production work of Dave Cobb throughout this album, as he too would rise to a greater level of prominence after the release of this album. He’s the most hotly demanded producer in Nashville today, as he racks up numerous awards for his impressive body of work. This album has accomplished so much and will probably prove to be even more influential with the passage of time. I could not think of a more slam dunk choice to be the first induction into Fusion Country Classics & Essentials. 

Album’s Top Highlights: Turtles All The Way Down, It Ain’t All Flowers, Living The Dream, The Promise, Long White Line


Producer: Dave Cobb

Songwriters: Sturgill Simpson, Buford Abner, Clive Farrington, Michael Floreale, Andrew Mann