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Ear to the Ground: Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles All the Way Down”

With a nylon-string and subtly psychedelic production, Simpson channels Waylon Jennings while keeping Gram Parsons' vision of "cosmic American music" alive.

It must have been a bit weird for Shooter Jennings when Sturgill Simpson’s eponymous 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, was garnering all those comparisons to Shooter’s late, great father—country legend Waylon Jennings. One listen to Simpson’s voice, and it’s impossible to deny that he inflects more like ol’ Waylon than his son does.

Maybe that’s why Simpson’s 2014 follow-up, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, plays with a noticeable departure in style. Where his first album was a rootsy nod to the anti-Nashville outlaw-country movement of the ’70s, his sophomore outing is gussied up with a countrypolitan production that’s tinged with a subtle psychedelia similar to the Everly Brothers’ 1968 opus, Roots.

“Turtles All The Way Down” opens with Simpson’s throaty drawl crooning over a simply strummed nylon-string before Mellotron, tape phasing, and other astral-sounding effects are tastefully layered in. Foregoing the genre’s usual themes of beer, trucks, and divorce, Simpson’s lyrics are largely inspired by Dr. Rick Strassman’s book The Spirit Molecule—a work that researches mystical experiences people have undergone while taking the powerful hallucinogenic drug DMT.

Here and throughout Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson has reinvented Gram Parsons’ vision of “cosmic American music” without resorting to any of the post-hippie rock ’n’ roll clichés that riddled the ’90s alt-country scene.