Sturgill Simpson is the best active cover artist today. Granted, Sturgill isn’t even remotely close to being a cover artist, as his impressive discography would support; but nestled away amongst his slew of psychedelic country chanteys and live sets lie a handful of inconceivable covers that have been totally transformed with the most inert of ease into renegade country renditions we’ve come to expect from Simpson.
The best covers are the most selfish – not in pretense, but in spirit – when an artist takes the song of another and reworks it into such an unique and original fashion, they’ve practically created an entirely different song that’s unequivocally their own. I’m talking covers that you didn’t even realize were covers before you read the album liner, not the Radio One “Live Lounge” covers like Ben Howard’s “Call Me Maybe” or any band ever’s fan boy (or girl) rendition of “Creep.” I’m talking about Hendrix covering Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and even more contemporary covers like Jose Gonzalez turning The Knife’s ultra electronic “Heartbeats” into a forlorn folk lamentation.
They all spit in the face of musical reverence that is the art of song covering and produce renditions that simply usurp their predecessors, with Sturgill Simpson as yet another cover master. Simpson’s anthology of covers has seen the Versailles, Kentucky native take on Otis Redding to Nirvana, with every outcome being the same – transcendent. Now does my choice of grandiose descriptors sound like something a fan boy would say? Absolutely. I’m a fan, no way around it. But the manner of which my fandom was originated is completely connected to Simpson’s cavalcade of covers.
I was first made aware of Simpson’s momentous cover capabilities when a friend played his rendition of “The Promise” in 2014. It was a phenomenal country ballad on par with any single from Waylon Jennings’ run in the 70s. It wasn’t until after my friend played When In Rome’s original version that I realized it was in fact a cover. Needless to say (and judging by the tone of this article), I was floored. It seemed like an unprecedented intersection of country and shitty 80s pop that remains one of the best covers of the new millennium, in my opinion.
Fast forward to 2016, and Simpson’s follow-up to the magnificent Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – sees Sturgill distilling yet another non-country song into a uniquely Simpson-esque composition. This time around, Sturgill enters vaunted territory by taking on Nirvana’s “In Bloom” – arguably one of grunge (and Kurt’s) finest works – on his third full-length release, which will undoubtedly be one of the year’s best. The track features a bevy of intricate country inflections – lap steel draped over harpsichords – that rework the despondent Cobain track into a song full of empathy and perspective, all the while expanding Simpon’s sonic proclivities as he morphs his badass version of the Bakersfield Sound into a Waylon Jennings-meets-Wilson Pickett variant.
In my opinion, another aspect that only further cements Strugill Simpson as a colossus of covers is the uncurbed confidence associated with releasing a cover as a pre-release single. It exudes an ineffable aplomb that all but assures the cover is as effective a representation of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as any of its other associated tracks. Simpson may “only” be on the third full-length release of his career, but if the trend of one or two rousing (and uniquely deferential) covers an album continues from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on out, Sturgill will have solidified himself as – amongst myriad other (more important) things – the best cover artist in all of music.
– Sean M.