It’s difficult for me to view Sturgill Simpson’s meteoric rise over the past year with anything other than pride. After all, he was the bandleader of Sunday Valley, the one-time kings of my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. The first few times I saw Sunday Valley play The Dame were the kinds of live music experiences I cannot discuss in terms that don’t make me sound like a horrible hippie: it was like the band and the crowd became one, man (side note: the only other time I truly felt that way was the first time I saw the Dave Rawlings Machine). It’s hard not to hearken back to those nights spent with a few hundred people jigging away to the souped-up twang of Sturgill’s Telecaster now that the man is turning up on Letterman and Conan. It feels like one of our own has made it.
It would be far too easy to hipster out and claim Sunday Valley was peak-Simpson. This year’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is by far his best statement to date. Anyone just now boarding the Sturgill Simpson Express is getting on at the right time. But revisiting his work with Sunday Valley is not without merit.
2011’s To the Wind and On to Heaven is arguably Sunday Valley’s best release, but Simpson was already headed towards a solo career at that point: second guitarist and Bocephus-lookalike Billy Mason had already departed before that album was recorded; the excellent left-handed bassist and high-lonesome-harmony man Gerald Evans would depart soon after (replaced by Simpson’s current bassist Kevin Black); when ex-Infected stickman Edgar Purdom departed in 2012, Sunday Valley was no more. To get close to that great Sunday Valley live experience I enjoyed back in the mid-2000s, it’s necessary to revisit 2004’s Sunday Valley.
The album art for Sunday Valley is undeniably a vestige of its time. Yes, the band’s Myspace page is referenced on the CD itself. Yes, Purdom unabashedly sports a University of Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt and cap on the front cover (at least the other boys have their cowboy hats on, and at least Mason, as always, has his reflector shades on and a cig dangling nonchalantly from his lips). Yes, the back cover features a vintage photo of a little girl in a dress standing in front of an early automobile riddled with bullet holes. And yes, there is an American Traditional rendering of a cowgirl with her tits half out on the inner sleeve. Hello, 2004. If it all seems a little silly in retrospect, it also seems a little quaint. And even after a decade, the music still holds up.
The disc begins with “Sometimes Wine,” one of the absolute barn burners from Sunday Valley’s live repertoire. Mason begins the proceedings by banging out a shuffle on his Les Paul that owes as much to the Ramones as it does to traditional country. This ain’t your grandpa’s honky tonk. After four bars, Purdom begins tapping out the beat on the rim of his tom. Simpson soon joins in on lead guitar before howling, “I have always tried to keep my glass full/sometimes that whiskey and sometimes wine/Baby, why is it whenever your glass is empty/ you come along and knock over mine.” From there, the drums fully kick in and Evans begins providing the low end. Simpson and Evans then sing the chorus: “I’d like to tell you I can make it without you/ I won’t shed a tear when you walk out the door/I’ve been up and down that road a time or two/ but then I’ve never been without you before.” This is the universe in which Sunday Valley exists: the narrator is forever near his next drink and forever wronged by a woman. If the archetypes are well-worn, they sound fresh sung by Simpson. Over the last year, the press has often and rightly praised Simpson’s voice, and though here it is not the refined instrument it is in 2014, it is still a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, when Simpson cries at the song’s conclusion, “Since you’ve been gone, this life’s been more than I can stand/ so sometimes whiskey and sometimes wine,” I want to belly up to the bar with the song’s narrator and buy him a shot of Kentucky bourbon.
“Where did we go wrong?”—the album’s second track and yet another show-stopper live—already finds Simpson playing rebel and outsider: “I’ve got bullshit on my TV/ bullshit on my radio/ Hollywood’s telling me how to be me/ the bullshit’s gotta go.” In recent interviews, Simpson has rejected mainstream country music and the notion that he is some sort of antidote for the bullshit country music on the radio. Sturgill Simpson is the outsider’s outsider, a role he first experimented with here. The real masterpiece on Sunday Valley, however, is “I Wonder,” a scorched-earth, brokenhearted ballad in 3/4 that finds Simpson—his voice already dripping with the pathos that made Metamodern Sounds a hit—hollering, “Tell me, am I the only one drinking and cursing your name?” over slow-burning, distorted guitars. Thereafter, Sunday Valley finds Sturgill and the boys turning Loretta Lynn’s “Honky Tonk Guy” into a true shitkicking stomper and experimenting with gothic themes on “Let Me Know,” with its refrain of “Cuz I don’t know, Lord, if I can go on livin’/ all the love inside me’s dead/ not one day goes by I don’t consider/ puttin’ my papaw’s shotgun to my head.”
Sunday Valley concludes with “Folded Flag,” the album’s only true glimpse of the solo artist Simpson would become and a true middle finger to Rightwing America. The track finds Simpson alone, picking out a blues figure on his acoustic, and lamenting, among other things, the “white collar motherfuckers livin’ up on Pennsylvania A-V-E,” “some pot-belly, big-wig, owner of an oil rig,” and “redneck, nepotistic, white trash motherfuckers home watchin’ CMT.” Though Simpson worries “They’re gonna say that [he’s] a communist, unpatriotic, dope-smoking, degenerate hippie,” when he gleefully wails, “They might control the whole damn world/ but they ain’t gonna control me,” he has found a perfect rallying cry for a wonderful career that is only just now beginning to approach its zenith.
I strongly encourage everyone to download Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, but I also encourage everyone to try and find Sunday Valley.