When the 2016 Grammy nominations were announced in December, the Album of the Year category listed some no-brainers: Beyoncé, with her pop-cultural seismic event Lemonade; eventual winner Adele, who'd previously won the award for her once-in-a-decade album, 21; and staples like Drake and Justin Bieber, who appeared less for their latest albums than as an acknowledgment of their chart domination and cultural influence. The fifth nominee, alt-country singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson, was met with a resounding, "Who?"
It's a question he's laughed off — and even agreed with — in interviews since his nomination was announced. It was also the one that came up again when he was anointed the opening act on a string of slots for Guns N' Roses' wildly popular Not in This Lifetime Tour, including the August 8 concert at Marlins Park. The tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of the band's career-defining album Appetite for Destruction.
For those keeping up with Nashville's ever-expanding subculture of independent country or so-called Americana artists, who are often viewed as a reaction to mainstream, big-budget bro country, Sturgill Simpson first made a splash with his 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, a psychedelic exploration of the country genre with references to DMT and The Tibetan Book of the Dead in place of trucks and red Solo cups. If anything, the Grammy nomination of his third album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, was seen by those hip to the Nashville underground as a late recognition of an artist who'd been innovating the genre for some time.
But for some fans who followed Simpson's career even before his Metamodern breakthrough, the announcement of a Guns N' Roses opening slot was met with excitement muddled by confusion. It's not the first time GNR has chosen a country artist as an opener. Chris Stapleton, who exists in a liminal state between the mainstream and underground country music worlds, did just that last summer. But the online reaction to the Simpson announcement shows that both fan bases view the lineup as an oddball pairing.
When one looks past surface genre classifications, the Guns N' Roses influence is strong in Simpson's music. He spoke of this at length last year on an episode of Marc Maron's podcast, WTF. Simpson mentioned bluegrass greats and country legends such as Merle Haggard right alongside Led Zeppelin and Guns N' Roses as the building blocks upon which he built his unique sound.
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"I had an older cousin who showed me all the wrong records way too young," he said. "I had the next door neighbor, the token bad kid with the Chevy Nova who was in high school when Appetite for Destruction came out... He pulls up one day just blasting this primal sound, and I was like, 'What is that?' And he just looked at me, and I'll never forget it 'cause it crushed me. He was like, 'Where the fuck you been, kid? In a cave? That's Guns N' Roses, man.' My mom ended up throwing away three copies 'cause she kept finding it and seeing the inner artwork."
The lines between country and rock 'n' roll have always been blurry, and Nashville's new class of independent Americana artists relishes in coloring outside the lines. At a time when innovation in rock has all but stalled as electronically produced music surges in popularity, the rebellious ethos of Guns N' Roses lives on in the genre-bending, barrier-breaking music of artists like Simpson, who refuse to be bound by the prisons of tradition and convention. After years of infighting, postponed and cancelled tours, and a 15-year wait for a fairly received album, the Not In This Lifetime Tour has reasserted Guns N' Roses' legacy as one of America's last great bands, and it serves GNR's interests to spotlight artists from the rock world and beyond who claim the bandmates as musical heroes.
Simpson's rock-star influence was perhaps best exemplified when he took Appetite for Destruction literally and broke more than just musical barriers on his SNL debut in January. During the band's performance of "Call to Arms," the closing track on A Sailor's Guide to Earth, he broke the cymbals clean off his drummer's kit and kicked keyboardist Bobby Emmett's piano before Emmett knocked it to the ground. Finally, at the end of the song, he slammed his guitar down (the original mike drop). The performance called to mind Jimi Hendrix's LSD-fueled fire performance and the Who's onstage instrument destruction at the Monterrey Pop Festival. It was a direct homage to the SNL debut of one of Simpson's favorite bands, one he covered on his Grammy-nominated album, Nirvana. I'm not sure how the Okie from Muskogee would've felt about the display, but Axl Rose probably loved it.