Dharma Country: Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds”

Sturgill Simpson doesn’t claim to be a Buddhist. But, there are clear Buddhist references on “Metamodern Sounds.”

Ricardo Salcedo
4 March 2016
Sturgill Simpson playing guitar.

His A Sailor’s Guide to Earth has just been nominated for an Album of the Year Grammya nod that Yahoo News calls the “biggest surprise” in a group that includes Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, and Justin Bieber, thanks to Simpson’s “abstract lyricism including meditations on Tibetan Buddhism.” Here, Lion’s Roar’s Ricardo Salcedo looks at the Buddhist influences in Simpson’s lauded 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

“Spiritual but Not Religious.” The number of people who consider themselves to be just that — or at least spiritually unaffiliated — is on the rise, according to the latest Pew Research Center stats. And when there are shifts in how people live their lives, you can bet there will be shifts in culture, too. Even in the heartland. There may be a “culture war” in the US — but some folks aren’t having it.

Take Sturgill Simpson, whose name might be freshly familiar due to his theme for HBO’s current series, Vinyl. Simpson is a country musician from a small Kentucky town—not exactly your typical hotbed of Buddhist activity, granted. And yet his album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, is an indicator of the opening up of spiritual interest in popular culture, and an example of how Buddhist principles can fit into the mix. (And really, the country genre seems ready-made for discussing impermanence and suffering, doesn’t it?)

Now, Simpson doesn’t claim to be a Buddhist. (He’s clearly interested in the mind in general, having talked in interviews about religion, philosophy, and hallucinogenic drugs; he’s also acknowledged that “I have Jesus’s name tattooed on my body.”) But, there are clear Buddhist references on Metamodern Sounds. With its trademark twang, the album won’t cause any listener to wonder if it’s a country record. But its themes and feel make it seem out of the ordinary and a complete departure from Simpson’s previous work, as well as the current pop-country scene. For example, take a listen to “Just Let Go.”

“Just Let Go” might be interpreted in a number of ways, but it’s worth noting that Simpson makes specific reference to the bardo, a word that will ring a bell with those familiar with the famed Buddhist text, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Woke up today and decided to kill my ego
It ain’t ever done me no good no how
Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo
[…] Taking a 49 divine day vacation

A bardo is a transitional state of being, between literal death and rebirth. (And it’s said in the Tibetan Book of the Dead that the transition from death is a 49-day journey.) But the bardo also serves as a metaphor; as its primary meaning refers to being between states, Simpson is perhaps referring to his intentional departure from more traditionally American spiritual beliefs. One way or another, we know it’s a metaphor, if only because Sturgill’s clearly not singing to us from beyond the grave.

In his song “Turtles All the Way Down,” he sings that “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in,” that he’d “met the devil in Seattle and spent 9 months inside the lion’s den,” and that he “Met Buddha yet another time and he showed me a glowing light within.” This is an artist who’s interested in finding and pursuing a spiritual way forward, devoid of fear.

That seeking tone continues through the rest of the song—and much of the album for that matter. Indeed, “Turtles,” Simpson told NPR in 2014, “is about giving your heart to love and treating everyone with compassion and respect no matter what you do or don’t believe.”

Sonically, Metamodern Sounds is worth every minute spent listening. All the while Simpson seems to shrug off the accolades and the critics’ appraisal that he’s country music’s savior. “Really,” he later told NPR about the album, “I wanted to make a social consciousness album about love.”

Ricardo Salcedo

Ricardo Salcedo

Ricardo Salcedo is a husband and father of two, a carpenter, and a fan of sports that put him in nature’s path. He’s the Audience Development Manager for LionsRoar.com.