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Music Review: 'A Sailor's Guide To Earth,' Sturgill Simpson


Sturgill Simpson is not your usual country singer. His breakout album, which many critics considered one of the best of 2014, had songs about neurochemistry and self-realization. His new album is inspired by the birth of his son. And critic Will Hermes thinks it's one of the best records he's heard this year.


STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) Hello, my son. Welcome to Earth.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: What makes Sturgill Simpson such a great country singer is how he holds onto tradition at the same time he's blowing straight past it. It's a surprise to hear him crooning with violins at the beginning of his new record.


SIMPSON: (Singing) Wish I'd done this 10 years ago, but how could I know? How could I know that the answer was so easy?

HERMES: And it's even more of a surprise when the song tilts into what sounds like a 1960s Otis Redding jam.


SIMPSON: (Singing) When I get home, it breaks my heart seeing how much you've grown all on your own.

HERMES: Of course, country music has a rich history that includes string arrangements and soul music and concept albums, too, like this one. The narrative has roots in Simpson's own biography that included a military stint, which seems to color this song, a spin on country music's venerable tradition of soldier stories.


SIMPSON: (Singing) And if you get sick and can't manage the kick and get yourself kicked out of the Navy, you'll spend the next year trying to score from a futon life raft on the floor and the next 15 trying to figure out what the hell you did that for. But flying high beats dying for lies in a politician's war.

HERMES: Simpson conceived this album as a message from a sailor to his wife and child. And even the record's most surprising track fits this narrative. It's a coming-of-age meditation written by Kurt Cobain.


SIMPSON: (Singing) He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along. And he likes to shoot his gun, but he don't know what it means, don't know what it means to love someone.

HERMES: Putting strings and horns on a Nirvana song, let alone its veiled swipe at gun lovers, takes guts for a country singer. And the album is full of risks like that, stuff that would come off as forced or schmaltzy if it wasn't delivered with so much conviction.

This is country music informed by the entire country, channeled through one man's experience. And in this divisive election year, it's the most heartening record I've heard so far.

MCEVERS: Will Hermes reviewed "A Sailor's Guide To Earth" by Sturgill Simpson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.