“When we recorded the album, I mentioned a couple of times to all of the band, ‘this is going to be some Grammy shit.’ I wasn’t saying that we were going to win a Grammy, I just heard that the album sounds different from anything else I’ve ever heard,” recalled Laur Joamets, better known as Lil Joe, Sturgill Simpson’s lead guitarist. His statement wasn’t affected with an ego, but rather with recognition that the album, which was originally completed with premonition that Sturgill had just martyred his career, was actually a critical piece of music. We talked over a drink at 3 Crow only five days after the Recording Academy announced their Grammy nominations, with Sturgill’s album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, earning election to the ‘Americana Album of the Year’ category, and on the evening that Joe had just returned to town from a sold-out tour. “I’m sure there is a lot out there that might be really good, maybe even in the same pocket. I just felt that it’s going to happen.”
I had seen Joe perform with Sturgill a few weeks prior, as they graced the stage of the Ryman while opening for Jason Isbell. He told me he was going back on the road but was returning on December 10. No need for reminders or calendar scribbles, the date was branded in my mind, a date I anticipated for about a month. The intoxicating conversation with the 26-year-old Estonian native was worth the wait, and hearing him talk about his still recent arrival to Nashville and experience with Sturgill was like listening to a hypnotizing sermon of broken English and musical awareness that was accompanied by a communion of cheap beer and a shared love for the magic of this town. “I’m not even good at socializing,” he said. “I don’t even speak well. But I know that when I take the guitar, and I start playing it and start figuring it out for myself, or the band, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me. It’s the only way I can communicate.”
He translates his commentary through a custom Fender Telecaster made up of composite parts bought off eBay (though now he speaks through a ’74 Fender Telecaster), and his steel-string dialogue is articulate and unparalleled in the musical arena. Joe can cover Hendrix’s songs without sounding like a try-hard, and he can play slide guitar as if he was born in the Delta or a student of Duane Allman’s. His musicianship, unforgettable tone and masterful command over his instrument only further the mission of Sturgill’s 2014 album, released as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. Masking human conditions with a country soundscape, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is made possible by Sturgill’s songs and vocal narrations but amplified by a band and a producer, Dave Cobb, that are equally committed to the musical disguise.
“I started out in bar bands when I was 14, filling in for gigs for my dad,” recalled Joe. “I like to call him my taste police. Every time I did something he didn’t like, he told me to do something different or figure something else out.” Joe was susceptible to his father’s influence and advice, seeking it when the repetitive 45-minute sets of dance music became a grueling job rather than an enjoyable way to earn a living. “My father said, ‘what else are you going to do?’ when I thought I didn’t want to do this anymore. He told me, ‘learn the original parts of all of the songs, and come back to me and say that it’s shit.’ And I did, and my attitude changed totally.” Falling hard for the blues and rock and country, all of which are brothers and sisters to him, he did what was only natural.
He started a band of his own, Dramamama, and one night they opened for Rival Sons, introducing Joe to Michael Miley (drummer). He planted the Nashville seed in Joe’s mind. With the suggestion from Miley, he sent Dave (Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings) a Facebook message. In his note to the mastermind producer, Joe not only expressed his take on music and what it meant to him, but he included a few tracks of him playing that encouraged a quick response from Dave. “I hope you like Country music, because this guy Sturgill is going to hire you,” he told me. “And the next day I got an email from Sturgill with a list of dates, and he asked me if I would go on tour with him.”
“I bought plane tickets, and then, here I am…I thought, I’m going to get off a plane with my poor English and no friends and get gigs in Nashville. That’s impossible. You don’t just show up and say, ‘I play guitar,’ like nobody’s heard that before,” laughed Joe, eight months into his three-and-a-half year American visa. “The first gig was horrible, at least for me. I was terrified, and it sounded like I was terrified.” And when committed to the U.S. tour, he never anticipated that making a record with Sturgill would come next. “I didn’t have an idea of how music was recorded in America. I knew that Dave Cobb was a genius, because I love his work…I was supposed to play the first solo on the record, and Dave came into the room and said, ‘we have everything for the song, but we don’t have the solo.’ And I sensed my face going totally pale. So I think, ‘ok I try my best, but I’m not good for America, I’m not good for Nashville. I’m just not good enough.’ But Dave helped me, and we started moving forward with the solo, and then recorded the whole album in four days.”
Joe’s contribution to the album and to the live performances has undeniably widened Sturgill’s musical footprint, one that imprinted on every ‘top of 2014’ list. But it is a symbiotic relationship. “The reason how I play guitar right now is mainly because of him. Because he pointed out how I’m supposed to play country guitar. It’s probably the reason why he wanted me, because I didn’t have the background; I wasn’t biased. But at the same time, the ideas that he gives me, it’s refreshing. And honestly, I like the professional attitude he has towards touring. It’s not a party,” though a few indulgences may have occurred at the beginning. “One thing you have to understand about me: I wasn’t born here. I didn’t listen to the radio or go to live shows. Like in Nashville, there is such a beautiful and special thing that you can go out and get world-class music every night. And this is the reason why we are here. It’s the musician’s makeup,” cited Joe.
This lead me to question his view on the divine intervention of the media and how he perceives Sturgill’s critical ordainment. Sturgill has most certainly been enshrined by media and listeners as some kind of “savior of country music,” as though the genre died a horrible death many moons ago. Yet in contrast to that, the Recording Academy has herded Metamodern Sounds in Country Music into the ‘Americana Album of the Year’ category, a genre that is like a modern church with an apprehension to denomination. (Please, someone explicitly define Americana for me so I can try to understand.) But before we induct him into sainthood, I’m just going to stick with what Joe has to say. “That’s other people’s jobs, to put names on things, to call us idols. We just do our thing.” And the music is pretty damn explicit, if you haven’t already heard.
It isn’t country because it is reinstating a vintage formula. It isn’t country just because it utilizes instrumentation and harmonics often associated with the genre. It isn’t country because of its album title or media denotation (but really, why didn’t the Recording Academy get the memo?). It is country because it is social commentary on and confession of the human experience, the basis of all country and roots music. No sacrificial lambs (or wolves in wool), no revivals, no speaking in tongue lost years ago in Bakersfield, no need for resurrection. It is not crucified country roaming the earth once again. It exists because it never died. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and its participants are living proof. Says Joe, “if the way Sturgill writes songs and sings, if that’s not country, I don’t know what is.”