Country’s greatest living legend, George Strait, dropped a new album on March 29, “Honky Tonk Time Machine.” (Strait has retired from regular touring, but not from recording.)
George Strait at Greune Hall, 2016
I make no bones about it: I’m biased and I’m okay with it. George Strait is my favorite artist of any genre, he was my first real concert, and he defines what country music should sound like. No one is perfect, but my fellow Texan can do little wrong. The man may not know songwriting, but he knows music, and perhaps that’s even better. George Strait can listen to a rusty demo, find a gem, and turn it into something we can all connect with, and isn’t that what music’s all about? When you hear the first two notes of The Chair, Amarillo By Morning, Wrapped, Check Yes or No, Fool Hearted Memory, or any one of 100 others – you’re home. And with 60 #1 hits and dozens more in the top 10, it really is 100 others.
“Honky Tonk Time Machine” is a little uneven, but still good. It’s not up there with anything from Strait’s spectacular runs in the ‘80s, 90’s, or ‘00s, but it holds its own with his last few outings, and gives us more of that classic sound we’ve been yearning for.
The album is way better than 2015’s lackluster “Cold Beer Conversation,” and I bet that on repeat listening, it will be of a piece with the previous four albums going back to 2008. (Go back further and you’re into the good stuff.)
No songs clearly deserve to be on a future Essentials collection, but with an overall cohesive Texas sound, the record holds its own. Strait co-wrote eight songs, continuing this new phase of his career. After writing a few flops at the very start in the early ‘80s, he turned to singing others’ songs, until picking up the pen again in 2009. Eight is a new high, one more than 2011’s “Here for A Good Time.” Co-writing with his son seems to fire the man up, and who can blame him for that? The result is songwriting that’s not quite as good as we used to get, but a happy artist and another decent album.
“Some Nights” is a slow, classic country song about love and loss. This might be the best song on the album, and I hope it’s the next single. You can say similar things about the wistful ballad “Sometimes Love” or the cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” both of which I like, but nothing touches “Some Nights.” These three have been the highlights, at least during my first listens.
The second single “God and Country Music” sounds good, but don’t pay close attention. It has the feel of a vintage George Strait song, but as an ordained minister, I honestly don’t like the lyrics. “There’s two things still worth saving // God and country music.” Nope. We don’t save God. God saves us. It’s great music but try as I might, I can’t get behind the well-intentioned but accidentally arrogant words. For religion, I prefer “What Goes Up,” a slow song about Christ’s presence during our darkest days.
“Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” (the first single), “Two More Wishes” and “Blue Water” are nothing special, but they’ll all be good background music when you’re hanging out at the lake. They round out the sound and that’s okay.
If you’re looking for fun on the dance floor, for which Strait has given us many fine examples over the years, you’ll be happy with “Take Me Away” and the title track. Same as the previous three I mentioned, they’re nothing special in and of themselves, but they help contribute to the album’s overall feel, that classic George Strait sound that never goes wrong.
I wish I could say the same about “Codigo,” but it feels like a drunk Strait checked out and joined Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett at the shore, and that makes sense, because he’s just trying to hock his own vanity line of tequila, Codigo. That’s fine, whatever, moving on.
“The Weight of The Badge” is the third single, about the sacrifices and honor of a police officer. In my day job, I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns against police violence. Anyone who has the legal authority to deny life and liberty must be held to a higher standard. So let me be clear: I like this song’s message! Yes, sometimes bad people become cops and abuse their authority, but good people also become cops to protect us. This song doesn’t wade into the politics, and if it feels like it does, that’s only because the topic has become politicized. No, this just salutes officers who make sacrifices for their communities, and I like that. Alas, the lyrics themselves are forced and syrupy, but hey, that’s what country did in the 2000s, and aren’t we stepping into a time machine?
Finally, there’s “Sing One With Willie.” You want more from the song that finally gives us this much-yearned for duet; it has no purpose other than to exist and talk about itself. But that’s okay, I’m not going to complain too much, because my heavens, we’ve finally got a Willie Nelson and George Strait duet!!!
Like I say, “Honky Tonk Time Machine” isn’t great, but it is good, and it’s refreshing to have new music from the king. What’s especially encouraging is that the lead single, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” is currently at #19 on the country airplay chart, and Spotify is featuring the album and a short film about Strait’s career on their Hot Country playlist. Along with Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, and Kasey Musgraves holding spots on the chart, there seems to be at least a tiny resurgence of hope on the airwaves.
3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 and a very hearty Texas thank you to his royal highness.
(If you must, you can skip to my actual rating and summary at the end of this post, but whatever you do, buy this album – buy it now. And remember, it’s independently produced, so you’re not giving your money to a rich fat label.)
I wouldn’t use the word savior. Country radio could use a savior, but there’s lots good in country music that doesn’t need saving. That said, I did write last week that what country needs is not a new George Strait but a new Willie Nelson, and that maybe Sturgill would fill that role. That is, someone who can unite the many roots subgenres, create a movement, and eventually push it into the mainstream.
Trigger over at Saving Country Music, who does call for a “savior,” throws some cool water on all that for now. He loves Simpson – his 2013 co-artist of the year – as much as I do, but cautions against the danger of high expectations:
In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created… Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana. But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry… Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry.
L-R Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.
Fair enough. All that said, in every interview Sturgill gives, he seems to be filled with humility and focused more on his own identity, mission, and family than on professional success. “I’m not pursuing a mainstream career,” he told Billboard, “so I feel that I have the freedom to make the kind of records I want to. That’s a good feeling.” To CMT: “I could go back to the railroad. I liked that job.” And to NPR, “To be cliché and incredibly trite about it, I wanna make art… There was a big part of me that wondered maybe if this would be the end of my career. But you can’t worry about those things… A commercial path isn’t something I’m at all interested in pursuing.” And pretty definitively to Rolling Stone:
A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there. Because, fortunately, I’ve never pursued that side of the industry, which means I never had the opportunity to be screwed over or have any of these horror stories that you hear about. So for me to sit and talk about that stuff would be insulting to people who have, and extremely naïve… I don’t know where I fit in, but I do know that when I figure it out, it ain’t going to be because somebody else did it for me.
Ok, ok. Let’s give the man some respect, and turn to the music itself.
An Album Review: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
This is not one of the greatest country albums of ALL time, but it is one of the greatest country albums in a long time.
Sturgill’s previous album, High Top Mountain, had an outlaw sound and a big focus on heartache and life’s struggles. Metamodern is no repeat. It generally keeps a similar sound despite a new band, but the lyrical heartache is mostly replaced with… well, with just about everything else, from black coffee to Buddha and reptile aliens, all of it driving at a bigger point about using love and compassion to get through life.
Sturgill says the album’s biggest influences were 80% his past experiences but also “The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and an essay that Emerson wrote called Nature… and then another book by Dr. Rick Strassman called The Spirit Molecule.” Or as he told NPR, it’s his “hobbyist interests… [in] the disguise of a traditional modern country record.” The liner notes also thank Stephen Hawking, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Sagan, and I think that last one’s especially cool because my birthday gift to myself this year was Sagan’s original “Cosmos” on DVD.
And yet, it stays country the whole time, both in its sound – traditional country – and its message, one of love and finding your way in the world. Astrophysics aside, Sturgill, who’s expecting his first child, says the album’s main point is really just the saving power of love for one another – and it shows. “Anytime I ever have met someone that was very angry or full of negativity, nine times out of ten if you really take a good look at that person’s life, there’s probably not a whole lot of love going on there.” Damn straight.
Before going track by track, I will say this: With Metamodern, Sturgill Simpson manages to simultaneously experiment AND keep sight of his roots. Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, and the stations that play them should take notes. Bro-country, EDM, and pop stars like Church defend their music by saying stuff like, “If we’re making the same music as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, why not just listen to that? They didn’t do the music before them, they completely changed.” Well, no, the outlaws didn’t COMPLETELY change – they were experimental, yes, but they kept to their roots. The whole point was to remind Nashville of steel guitars, fiddles, and personal stories, and push back against the era’s poppy homogenization. The problem with the music Church and his crowd are creating is that they “experiment” by merging genres, completely losing sight of their roots.
Sturgill shows them all how country experimentation is done. Let’s take it track by track.
1. Turtles All The Way Down
Metamodern’s opening track has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. How many other country songs can you think of that are named for Hindu theology or a Stephen Hawking quote? “Turtles All the Way Down” has the most interesting blend of metaphysical, cosmic, and psychadelic lyrics you may ever hear in country music, with the bottom line that for all the fancy religious theories out there, simple love is the most powerful. The first words on the album are “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire,” and soon after comes the now-famous line “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane // where reptile alien made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
But really, this song isn’t about cosmology, and it’s not about space aliens, either. That line is just a spacey way of talking about relief, about having our pain taken away. And what is that takes it away? “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT, they all changed the way I see // But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”
I actually don’t appreciate the swipes Sturgill takes at faith. Yes, belief and religion have caused a lot of pain an destruction, there’s no doubt about that. But let’s not mix up Christ for the Christians – faith can also be the source of the very love Sturgill sings about and encourages us to seek. Like retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, known to most for being the gay bishop but he’s much more than that, says, “Show me the God you don’t believe in – I probably don’t believe in him either.” In fact, when no other person is around to love us, God’s love is still there. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because the underlying message of love is still spot-on.
2. Life of Sin, 3. Living the Dream
Track two, “Life of Sin,” pats us on the back for getting through Turtles. It’s much more what you’d expect from a stereotypical old country album, singing about how his songs come from a heartbreak and drinking himself silly. Next up is “Living the Dream,” the album’s first single. This one’s a bit more convuluted in its metaphysical meaning. I could pontificate but it would sound more like disagreement then reflection if I put it in writing – which is to say, I did put it in writing, but cut it in the editing. Better to just quote the NPR interview again: “I’m learning the less I talk about it, the more opportunity I leave for people to form their own interpretation. ”
4. Voices, 5. Long White Line
“Voices” might have the most poetic lyrics on the whole album. Sturgill writes about the voices pressing in on him, how they’re singing about society’s depression – “the rivers are crying but the oceans cannot speak.” He wishes they’d go away but they never will, and it’s not a sign of the end times because they’ve always been there. Yeah, this sounds like something an Appalachian man would know and should write. Next is “Long White Line,” which like Life of Sin after Turtles, pulls it back to traditional country themes, allowing us to towel off after such a deep dive – his girl’s gone, so he’s hitting the open road. The guitar’s rhythm is something right out of a Cash or Willie album, too.
6. The Promise
The album’s back half then begins with a cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise” from 1988, which starts as the slowest love song of either of Sturgill’s albums, but opens up to a little bit of very effective and appropriate Waylon-esque wailing toward the end. The lyrics, some of the very few that aren’t original, are a beautiful promise to always be there, to be supportive. I don’t care for new wave music but in Sturgill’s style, I see that I love this song. I will offer a slight negative note about the instrumentation though – the mellotron is just a little too sappy. The lyrics really hold their own on this one with the way Sturgill sings them, no need to try and make it more romantic.
7. A Little Light
On “A Little Light,” Sturgill’s vocals are more reminiscent of Randy Travis’s Gospel stint or even George Jones than of the usual Waylon comparisons. It has the feel of a a Gospel song, but the lyrics are a bit broader than just Christianity. Sturgill sings about walking the road to Heaven, but says all you need to get there isn’t a compass or a map but a little light inside you. It’s about love and light within, and I dig it.
8. Just Let Go
I love the first line of “Just Let Go”: “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego // It ain’t ever done me no good no how.” And this line, oh this line: “You have to let go so the soul can fall.” It’s true, like pastor and author Rob Bell says, if your hands are too full of the good, there’s no room left for the great, you gotta set it down. And the uplifting melody and high notes really fit the words. I might have toned down the slide guitar though – oddly enough, it reminded me a little too much of the Finding Forrester soundtrack, which I dig, but in a very different way. That music is more searching, whereas the overarching feeling here is almost like taking a divine bath in God’s refreshing and hydrating light, feeling the relief and love it brings.
9. It Ain’t All Flowers
Then we get to “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and this is where I go, “What the F***?” Lyrically, like so much else, it’s great. It’s about searching the corners of one’s own mind to figure stuff out. Sturgill alternates between howling and almost growling. It works well. But then they play the song backwards, and it switches from dark, psychedelic country — but still country — to something more urban, almost funk with a spooky edge.
I don’t like it, because it’s not me. And that’s completely okay, because this one isn’t supposed to be me. It’s supposed to be Sturgill. If you want to respect a song about plumbing the depths of one’s own mind, then you have to let the writer go wherever that takes him or you’re a hypocrite. And like Sturgill told NPR, this one “stands to represent my own introspective journey I’ve taken over the last few years.” I also like part of his goal here – the means were cool regardless of the ends: “Dave [Cobb, producer and engineer] had the idea: Instead of bringing in synthesizers, why don’t we just attempt to try to recreate some of [popular modern electronica] sounds using analog equipment? Which sounded amazingly fun and challenging, so we were all for it.”
We close with the hidden “bonus” tenth track, “Panbowl.” For the third time, Sturgill tells us, “Wow, alright, took you down a pretty weird path there, didn’t I? Here, let’s have a rest together.” It’s acoustic country influenced by his previous bluegrass career. It’s also a more relaxing song, opening with happy guitar chords. The subject is nostalgia for his Kentucky childhood, and love for his family. That kind of specific love and the stories that back it up are a natural conclusion to the rest of the album’s lyrics, and the acoustic sound helps balance things out. It really is the perfect end to the album.
No matter how weird this album gets, and even without a fiddle, it’s still a country album. This is an album with slide guitars about life, and what else is true country music ever about, really? Whether it’s complex, twisted, and psychological or just simple and emotional, laying your soul bare is still laying your soul bare. Pain is pain and the need for love is the same, no matter how it was we came to see it.
And this is why I say that Sturgill might, just might, be our next Willie Nelson. Metamodern’s foundational sound is what traditional and outlaw country fans look for. It’s experimental and electric enough that Americana and alt-country fans can dig it. Throw in just a few more lighter notes or acoustic sound on even just one track, and you may not appeal to the Lumineers’ indie folk crowd but it won’t keep them away anymore, either. We’ll see what fans do with Sturgill’s stuff over the next few years, but he certainly has the right kind of appeal to be the Willie-esque uniter that roots music needs to punch back against hick-hop.
I’d worry that saying stuff like that puts too much pressure on Sturgill from fans, except for two reasons. First, his last album said, “Life ain’t fair and the world is mean.” Second, maybe he’s not our Willie Nelson. Maybe he’s our Jackie Robinson – like Branch Rickey saw in Robinson, you’re not necessarily the best at the game, but you’re the best at taking the pressure. Like Sturgill told Billboard, “If it’s all good and it’s smoke being blown up your ass, and you start investing faith in it all, that’s a good way for you to set yourself up for a long hard fall. We’re just trying to keep moving forward.”
4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5. I actually originally gave it five out of five for the first 8 hours this post was up, and should probably just leave it there, but something is holding me back. Objectively, this is a much better record than High Top Mountain, which I gave a 5. It’s absolutely a work of creative genius. And like I say, except for “It Ain’t All Flowers” (which I still respect), I love the sound. Sturgill hits the perfect spot of balancing experimentation with his roots. It’s also a big break from the subject material of his first album, showing great range and talent. Making this took a lot of bravery.
But personally, I prefer HTM, just out of personal taste, and feel like my ratings should reflect that. I also feel like something is dampening the sound. Trigger at Saving Country Music said it’s the recording hiss. Maybe. I think it also needs just a little more acoustic instrumentation, maybe some light fiddle, to open up the sound a bit – perhaps in place of the mellotron on The Promise. Not much, just a touch.
Finally, it’s exhausting. The tricks, the nuances, the metaphysics – it really makes you pause and think. You just can’t be neutral about this stuff. In fact, it reminds me a teeny bit of the debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Today the Fifth is seen as an innovative masterpiece, but at the time, there was so much new in it that Beethoven’s audience was just confused. I dig this album, and its message of love is spot-on, but it wipes me out – as any country exploration of the soul should.
So yeah, 4.5, maybe even all 5, whiskey bottles out of 5, but also with the hangover that that much whiskey brings.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, like Sturgill’s previous record, was recorded in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb. Except for Cobb, though, the band is all new: Laur Joamets on guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Miles Miller on percussion & backing vocals, Mike Webb on keyboards & mellotron, and Cobb on classical guitar & percussion.