Johnny Cash once made a list of essential country songs for his daughter Rosanne to explore, which decades later became the basis of her 2009 album, The List. Sturgill Simpson skips the middleman with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album of songs that he mostly wrote for his son.
The LP is Simpson’s third, following his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That album was a collection of lean songs that piled up comparisons to Waylon Jennings with a 1970s outlaw-country vibe full of twangy guitars, worn-in denim and grit. While there are still echoes of Jennings in Simpson’s voice, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is more ambitious by an order of magnitude than anything the Kentucky-born singer has done before.
It’s a country album at its core, but there’s a whole lot more happening here besides. Simpson dips into the sound of vintage soul with horns courtesy of the Dap-Kings. He often evokes the countrypolitan flipside to the outlaw movement with lush string charts and full-throated vocals that suggest there’s a “Rhinestone Cowboy” for every generation. And he indulges his moody inner teen with a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” that swells from spare and brooding to full-on rhapsodic by the end.
Simpson opens the album with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” a tender embrace of fatherhood that starts as a lullaby played on piano, with violin and steel guitar, before suddenly shifting into a Stax-style soul workout while Simpson sings about the sorrow he feels at having to be on the road away from his son. He offers life advice to the boy on “Keep It Between the Lines”—“If there’s any doubt, then there is no doubt, the gut don’t ever lie,” for example—punctuated by brash, stick-in-your-head horns and a fierce dual-guitar slide harmony part. “Sea Stories” is more of a cautionary tale the kid probably shouldn’t hear until he’s at least 18, as Simpson recounts his time in the Navy and some of the sketchy situations and bad ideas that went with it. Hearing him list off Pacific-rim ports of call in his rich Kentucky drawl—“From Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket/ From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur”—is worth the price of admission all by itself, and the keening steel guitar break that gives way to throatier electric slide guitar in the bridge doesn’t hurt, either.
Put “Keep It Between the Lines” and “Sea Stories” together and you get the essence of the bluesy, hard-driving “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” an exhortation to make the most out of life in the short time we have, without getting too hung up on regrets. He mines similar themes on the quietly atmospheric “Breakers Roar” and “Oh Sarah,” an understated song he wrote for his wife and first recorded with the bluegrass band Sunday Valley in 2010.
As a whole, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is simultaneously eclectic and of a piece: It’s big and bold and sometimes messy, but never unfocused. The way that Simpson captures the passion, joy, anguish and exhaustion that are part of first-time parenthood makes the album a powerful tribute to his son, while establishing Simpson as an artist who, despite his country heart, simply won’t be confined by notions of genre or, for that matter, anyone else’s expectations.