The New-Age Outlaw Country of Lydia Loveless and Sturgill Simpson

APRIL 30, 2014

There’s a problem that arises whenever you talk about singer-songwriters who work in a vein of country music situated somewhere between the slickly popular and the ruggedly traditional. Inevitably, these artists get lumped into the latter category and positioned against the former. They are sold as “antidotes” to the excesses of the mainstream stuff. And whenever this happens, what’s intended to be praise instead stigmatizes the musicians in question. Because while there’s plenty to enjoy about the rugged traditionalism of country’s less-profitable wing, nobody wants to be the “eat your vegetables” option.

Other things no musician wants to be: “nostalgic,” “old-timey,” “conservative,” “stodgy.” More often than not, these words are more applicable to listeners than to the artists who get tarred by them. At least that’s true of two of my current favorite country artists, Lydia Loveless and Sturgill Simpson.

Both have made albums that rank among the best LPs of 2014’s first half: Loveless’s Somewhere Else came out in February, and Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music arrives May 13. You can tell from both records that Loveless and Simpson have done their country-music homework. If you want to consider them torchbearers, the evidence is there to support it. They both specialize in rough-hewn melodies and lyrics that tell instantly relatable tales of heartache and self-destructive behavior. Given their maverick spirits and the exemplary consonance of their monikers, Loveless and Simpson are naturals for the “outlaw” tag.

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Grantland: The New-Age Outlaw Country of Lydia Loveless and Sturgill Simpson