On Saturday, Jan. 14, country musician Sturgill Simpson will grace the Saturday Night Live stage as the show's first musical guest of 2017. He follows in the footsteps of a slew of fellow country stars including Margo Price, Blake Shelton, and Maren Morris, but Simpson’s SNL performance will mark his debut on the sketch series. It’s a scene-stealing moment for the Kentucky-born singer, who only shot onto the music radar a handful of years ago.
He first climbed up the industry ranks with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, a heady, philosophic opus that ruminated on God, enlightenment, and self-medication. He was quickly hailed as a country renegade, reviving the vintage stylings of outlaw pioneers like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. His follow-up record, last year’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, was equally heralded, but for disparate reasons: It was praised as his most sonically ambitious effort yet, weaving Memphis soul, New Orleans funk, and swamp-rock blues atop his traditionalist southern style.
As his fame blossoms, Simpson has often retreated from the spotlight. His music is deeply personal, and he's outspoken in the interviews he grants, but you have to do a little digging to piece together his backstory. Below, I've rounded up eight things to know about Simpson ahead of his SNL appearance.
He’s A Grammy Nominee
Simpson’s second, career-solidifying record, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, earned him a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. This year, he’s up for Album of the Year and Best Country Album for his critically lauded A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, released last April.
He Took the Long Road to Nashville
According to his website's "about" page, before diving into music, Simpson traveled to Southeast Asia as a teen to serve in the U.S. Navy. He signed up in high school and left his home in Kentucky several days after graduation. Later, after a brief stint in Nashville, he picked up odd jobs throughout his 20s before spending time for the Union Pacific Railroad in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t until he was 35 that he put out his first solo album, 2013’s High Top Mountain.
He credits his wife as the catalyst that pushed him to finally pursue his dream. “My wife basically told me, 'You're going to wake up one day and be 40 years old and know that you never really had the chance to properly give this a go,'” he told Kentucky.com.
He Has Independent Roots
According to Billboard, Simpson self-funded and self-released his first solo project, High Top Mountain. He put out Metamodern Sounds after teaming with British indie Loose Music. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, released on Atlantic Records, marked his major label debut.
He Was Discovered On YouTube (Sort Of)
After stumbling across a YouTube clip of Simpson performing live, country icon Shooter Jennings took an interest in the budding artist. He later spotted Simpson in the crowd at a Nashville concert and introduced him to Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell), who eventually produced his first two records. "I'm thankful for the rest of my life," Simpson told Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett in a 2015 podcast. "I didn't even know [Shooter]. My manager got an email from Dave that night, at three in the morning, saying, 'I wanna make a record with Sturgill.'"
He’s A Family Man
Simpson is married and lives in Nashville with his wife. They welcomed their first child, a son, in 2014. According to NPS, A Sailor’s Guide was inspired by his birth, and the whole album reads like an open letter from a father to his child.
He Doesn’t Get the Waylon Jennings Comparisons
After breaking out with Metamodern Sounds, critics were quick to compare him to country great Waylon Jennings. It’s a reference Simpson appreciates, but doesn’t quite sign off on. "Maybe it's an attitude thing more than a music thing," he told Shiflett in the aforementioned podcast. "Waylon really is a guy I probably discovered later on and listened to the least. Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley — guys like that were huge influences. I love Waylon; I like the funky disco kind of feel, and I incorporate a little bit of that in my music. But when I'm in singing ... Man, if I'm imitating anybody, I'm trying to sound like three or four other people."
In Fact, He’d Kind of Like Them To Stop
"I think it's psychosomatic. I think people really want somebody right now to sound like Waylon Jennings. They want somebody to walk out on stage with a big, giant flag that says, 'F*ck You,’” he told Shiflett. “Believe me, it is frustrating, because it makes me feel like I haven't done a very good job of really getting my [own] voice down. It's like, 'Am I not very original in my approach?' But. . .there's a hell of a lot worse things you can be told than, 'Hey man, you sound like Waylon Jennings.' I'll take it a compliment, even when I'm burnt the f*ck out hearing it."
He Tells It How It Is
Perhaps the Jennings references draw more from Simpson’s persona. Like his predecessor, he’s built a reputation for his bold, candid approach to the world around him. “It really is a hustle, man,” he told The Fader of making his way in Nashville. “I just decided I’m not going to play that game and go out to the bars and do the networking and shake hands while looking over people’s shoulders. It makes me sick. I told myself that I’m not going to compromise because I’ve made so many bad decisions and mistakes in my life. There’s really no room for bullshit. I have to wake up and be proud of this someday and, more importantly, at least do one thing before I die that my family can be proud of.”
Hard-working, honest, and family-oriented? Sturgill Simpson sounds like a pretty great guy. You can catch him in action on SNL's Jan. 14 show.