Grammys: A Guide to Surprise Album of the Year Nominee Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson - Coachella - Getty - H - 2016
Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

The country singer shocked the music world with an unexpected nomination in the night's biggest category.

Remember "Bonnie Bear"? Remember when so many people wondered who Beck was?

The Grammys have a way of snatching established musicians from their respective realms of relevance and tossing them into the national spotlight, where they’re left to prove themselves anew. Joining Bon Iver and Beck in the Grammys' recent ranks of major left-field picks this year is Sturgill Simpson, a Kentucky-born singer-songwriter whose kaleidoscopic country tour du force A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is unexpectedly up for album of the year.

Simpson is a part of the country world, but he’s not exactly part of its establishment. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth — which dropped April 15 on Atlantic — draws from obvious non-country sources far more than what’s heard on country radio or lauded in the genre’s award shows. He's a singer-songwriter at heart, and that appeal gives Simpson a legitimate shot at scoring top honors at this year's awards. Drake's Views, Justin Bieber's Purpose, Beyonce's Lemonade and Adele's 25 dominated the discussion and the marketplace, but that means they’ll also be vying for the attention of many like-minded Grammy voters.

For guitar-based songwriting traditionalists — or those simply thinking outside the zeitgeist — Simpson is the only way to vote, giving him a defined, legitimate path to victory. So don’t wait until Feb. 12 (Grammy night) to get educated — here’s an introduction to Simpson.

Sturgill’s Story

Simpson, 38, was born in the small town of Jackson, in southeast Kentucky. His father was a policeman and his mother was a secretary; before them, his ancestors existed in the poverty of Kentucky’s Great Depression-era coal mines. Simpson actually spoke about how excited his still-living maternal grandfather was to watch his grandson perform at the Grand Ole Opry (hearing the Opry’s radio transmissions was one of their few pleasures during the 1930s).

Coming from a decidedly outside-the-music-industry, working-class background, Simpson took a roundabout way to musical notoriety. He enlisted in the Navy, traveled to Japan, lived in the American Northwest, moved back to Kentucky and then moved back to the Northwest, in Portland, Ore., where he fronted the band Sunday Valley in the early 2000s.

His Recent Work

When Simpson went solo, it all started to come together. In 2012, he began work on High Top Mountain, his completely self-funded, self-released debut, which came out the following year. It still draws frequent comparisons to Waylon Jennings and outlaw country, so it’s much more of a genre exercise than what he’d eventually accomplish.

He stuck with the same producer, Dave Cobb, for 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his real breakthrough. This was where he really started to mess with the tradition of country music, riffing on spirituality through drugs and different deities (not just Jesus!) over increasingly spaced-out strums and steel guitar. It won him national press from outlets like The New York Times, appearances on the major late-night talk shows and, lo and behold, a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.

Afterwards, Cobb wound up producing Chris Stapleton’s own breakthrough Storyteller (nominated for album of the year last year) and Simpson self-produced A Sailor's Guide to Earth, his first major-label release. It’s framed as a welcome-to-this-world letter to his newborn son, calling on country, punk and soul traditions (with brass from Sharon Jones' retro-soul backing band, the Dap-Kings) to navigate Simpson’s song cycle.

Watch the music video for the Sailor’s Guide cut “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” below.