Reptile Aliens and Cosmic Turtles

by Kiko Matsing

Sturgill Simpson at KCRW’s “Country in the City” concert in L.A.

I am attempting to make what I believe to be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years

Sturgill Simpson, on High Top Mountain
(from Saving Country Music interview)

The Long White Line from Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

Most of the crowd at the Annenberg Space for Photography last Saturday came to see Greg Allman. I was there for the opening act. I don’t know how I stumbled upon Sturgill Simpson’s YouTube video, Turtles All The Way Down, from my random surfing of the Web, but it got me immediately hooked on the 70s vibe he channeled. I just had to make the 2-hour drive to L.A. to see this show. I have lately become a follower of outlaw country music since discovering the documentary Heartworn Highways that featured the gritty, stripped-down style of the Austin/Nashville scene in the 1970s, including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and the haunting Steve Young.

Most moving scene in Heartworn Highways (1976):
Townes Van Zandt singing Waiting ‘Round To Die

This was preceded a decade earlier by Buck Owen’s and Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield sound–a raw, outcast, honky tonk style that blew away the respectable, easly-listening music churned out in Nashville during the 1950s. Then, of course, you have the bad-ass superstars who owned the desperado persona and elevated the Outlaw to mythic status: Johnny Cash (At Folsom Prison), Kris Kristofferson (The Silver Tongued Devil and I), Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger), and Waylon Jennings (Lonesome, On’ry and Mean).

Waylon Jennings is who Sturgill Simpson is often compared to, with his uncannily reminiscent scruffy looks, weary eyes, whiskey baritone, and emphatic phrasing. Even Shooter Jennings, son of the legendary singer, recognizes the similarities in a recent Rolling Stone piece: “he sounds like my favorite era of my dad, the Seventies, when he would sing quieter and more conversational.”

Waylon Jennings: Lonesome, On’ry and Mean

Sturgill Simpson: Life Ain’t Fair

After last year’s “purest, most uncompromising Hard Country” album, High Top Mountain, Simpson released the cheekily titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. “Metamodern” sounds like one of those intentionally-kept-vague postmodern (or, in this case, post-postmodern) neologisms. Even Simpson seems tentative about what it means:

The kids today, I hear this all the time: “Man, I fucking hate country music, but I love what you’re doing.” That says to me they’ve never heard country music, and if they did, they’d love it. It’s about as honest a form of American music as you’re going to find. I’m not trying to burn anything down, I’m just trying to give people what I’m not hearing or seeing anywhere myself: a different alternative, the possibility that it can be different than what you’re seeing. The metamodern idea… I read this guy… I read weird shit. This guy called Seth Abramson was talking about oscillation between naivety and our current culture’s love for nostalgia. It’s exactly what I see happening in Nashville right now.

(from The Fader interview)

An example of that weird shit is experimental poet Seth Abramson’s “Metamodernist Manifesto,” a constipated declaration chock-full of nosebleed theorizing. In sum, it denounces postmodernism’s excesses such as the denial of authorship, of creativity, and of human action. Postmodernism leaves us free-floating in a sea of relativity, disoriented, with nothing to anchor us down because all foundational ideals are unmasked as fiction, and language is merely a daisy-chain of meaningless terms. Abramson offers a way out of this postmodern mire with his notion of (brace yourself) a “metaphysical,” “transdimensional,” “metamodern” author. Abramson’s bland poetry (like most printed in The New Yorker these days) do make me wonder if the postmodernists are right after all and the author is indeed dead. But when I hear great country music such as Dolly Parton’s work in the 1970s (Coat of Many Colors, Touch Your Woman, Bargain Store), I get slapped back into reality from that pomo malaise. There is a powerful voice in these albums–and I’m not just talking about her singing voice–but her authorial voice as one of the greatest song writers on par even with Bob Dylan at his best.

Coat Of Many Colors

Back through the years
I go wonderin’ once again
Back to the seasons of my youth
I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use
There were rags of many colors
Every piece was small
And I didn’t have a coat
And it was way down in the fall
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin’ every piece with love
She made my coat of many colors
That I was so proud of

As she sewed, she told a story
From the bible, she had read
About a coat of many colors
Joseph wore and then she said
Perhaps this coat will bring you
Good luck and happiness
And I just couldn’t wait to wear it
And momma blessed it with a kiss

My coat of many colors
That my momma made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

So with patches on my britches
Holes in both my shoes
In my coat of many colors
I hurried off to school
Just to find the others laughing
And making fun of me
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me

And oh I couldn’t understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told ’em all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Dolly Parton with her larger-than-life personal style and strong lyrical voice is the tonic cure to the academic bellyaching about the “death of the author.” Deconstruction’s “iterability” (or repeatability–another obfuscating term) may apply to the bureaucratese of critical theory, but certainly not to a persona as sui generis as Dolly Parton. Country music and popular culture will never be the same without her. We cannot say as much of the bean counters (i.e., the theorists who parrot each other) in academia.

Going back on topic: I am more intrigued by the album’s nod to Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. In that album, Ray Charles transposed traditional country music into sleek urban soul. “Modernization,” in this sense, is taking something country (“rural” or “rustic”) and bringing it to the big city. It’s music from seedy honky tonk dance halls spruced up with a big band to headline coat-and-tie night clubs. There’s nothing hillbilly in that album cover: Ray Charles in his sharp suit is out to paint the town red.

Simpson’s album reverses this by rescuing country music from the slick bubble-gum pop of Taylor Swift and vapid bro-country, and bringing it back to gritty outlaw territory. The cover shows an illustration of Simpson that looks like a daguerrotype print from the 19th century on the shell of a stylized cosmic turtle. Although in form it sounds like outlaw country, it feels different because Simpson injects his own New Age sensibility and psychedelic flourish. In this sense, he modernizes outlaw country (or, rather, “metamodernizes” it) for a new audience. This is similar to what the White Stripes did for garage rock, and what the Black Keys are doing for blues rock.

Turtle’s All The Way Down

I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in
Met the devil in Seattle and spent 9 months inside the lions den
Met Buddha yet another time and he showed me a glowing light within
But I swear that God is there every time I glare in the eyes of my best friend
Says my son it’s all been done and someday yer gonna wake up old and gray
So go and try to have some fun showing warmth to everyone
You meet and greet and cheat along the way

There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane
Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain
Tell me how you make illegal something that we all make in our brain
Some say you might go crazy but then again it might make you go sane

Every time I take a look inside that old and fabled book
I’m blinded and reminded of the pain caused by some old man in the sky
Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT they all changed the way I see
But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life

So don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes
Or fairy tales of blood and wine
It’s turtles all the way down the line
So to each their own til’ we go home
To other realms our souls must roam
To and through the myth that we all call space and time

The lead single is elliptical and lyrically dense, with references to Eastern and Western religions, mind-altering drugs of the hippie generation, and cosmic mythologies of both traditional and scientific cultures. But Simpson gives it a lightness of touch with his easy-going performance and trippy plasma-globe light show in the music video. A tell-tale sign that you’re dishing out something new and different is when you offend the traditional audience:

At a recent show in Milwaukee, Sturgill Simpson found himself face-to-face with a curiously irate audience member. Her issue: the Kentucky-born deep thinker was trying to secretly spread Gnostic beliefs through his twangy yet decidedly progressive country songs.

“She was dead serious. She sat through the whole fucking show and waited until I was at the merch booth just to come over and tell me that I was preaching Gnosticism and that she hopes her children were never exposed to my music,” says Simpson, his eyes widening as he recalls the lengths to which the woman went to get her skewed message across.

In the end, Simpson only smiled at his detractor, deciding that it wasn’t worth getting into an argument about spiritualism while selling T-shirts and copies of his latest album, the stellar Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

“Honestly, the conversation was so weird that I had to go out and look on Wikipedia in the van after the show to really understand what Gnostics believe,” he admits. “And they do think that we’re all remnants of stardust from the one Divine that have been trapped in these physical bodies. I was like, ‘Fuck, I wish I was that clever.'”

(from Rolling Stones, 3 June 2014)

What’s interesting here was the woman’s reaction: she was dead serious about Simpsons words. This illuminates the nature of country music. Simpson was dismissed by a NY Times critic as a “top-notch miserablist,” a strange opinion coming from the arbiter of upper crust taste, because country music–and especially outlaw country–is about the down-and-out experience: heartbreak, substance abuse, being broke, and getting into trouble (and in prison). It is about what happens to real people in real life. Country music is mostly story-telling, and the best story tellers tell it as it is. Marcus Belgrave, a trumpeter for Ray Charles said: “Ray had always kinda leaned toward country and western; he liked the stories that country and western music gave him.” And the best country songs are where the stories ring true. As Simpson earlier put it: “It’s about as honest a form of American music as you’re going to find.” Words are as important as the music–and the audience will take you for your word.

Back cover of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger

It is also steeped in Christian religion. The corollary theme to that state of sin and guilt (or being down and out) is redemption. Willie Nelson’s outlaw masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger, is a meditation on this in the form of a song-cycle about a preacher who murdered his wife and her lover. Underneath the outlaw bravado is the frailty of human nature; the worst prisons they say are not made of concrete walls. There is thus this Protestant passion play underlying outlaw country of salvation from our fallen nature. So when Simpson declares a different kind of emancipation through some form of metaphysical knowledge (“a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane / Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain”), along with his general agnosticism (“don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes / Or fairy tales of blood and wine / It’s turtles all the way down the line”), he is veering away from establishment orthodoxy. Gnostics believed in the attainment of enlightenment, salvation, or divinity through esoteric knowledge (gnosis) (Wikipedia)–hence the woman’s consternation about numinous reptiles from mystic realms freeing us from our mortal infirmities. The Delaware Indians believed that the World is founded on a great Cosmic Turtle:

First there was only water, then the Great Turtle gradually rose above water level and the Creator placed mud on his shell. The mud dried and the Great Tree grew in the middle of the earth. As the Tree grew towards the sky a sprout became a man, then the Great Tree bent down and in touching the earth caused a sproud to become a woman. From this man and woman all of humanity descended…

Originally, I viewed the turtle as a logical choice for this atlantean burden because its shape and appearance were appropriate to this role. But that was before I understood Delaware culture and the choice of natural symbols.

The turtle is more than it appears. Speck noted that ‘turtle is earth, is life.’ Speck saw this assertion based on qualities of the turtle that the Delaware admired in life: perseverance, longevity, and steadfastness. Also the Delawares viewed all life, time, and turtles as continuously moving from east to west.

My own conversations with Delaware indicate that life and the earth would have been impossible without the turtle supporting the world. In recognition of its importance for survival, turtles have come to symbolise life itself and the earth that nourishes life.

(from Jay Miller, Why the World is on the Back of a Turtle, Man, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 306-308)

The expression “turtles all the way down” comes from Stephen Hawking, whom Simpson acknowledges (along with Carl Sagan) in the liner notes, and who relates the following anecdote in A Brief History of Time (1988):

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

The infinity of turtles on top of each other supporting the World is an expression of uncertainty about its ultimate foundation–the Unmoved Mover with whom the buck stops. Through the desiccated logic of the scientist (“What is the tortoise standing on?”) we end up in the absurd situation of infinite regress (propositions depending on propositions ad infinitum)–and thus to epistemological agnosticism. The Delaware, on the other hand, through their complex symbol system and cosmic imagination, had a firm belief regarding the foundation of their world. But notice in the lyrics that even as Simpson says it’s really turtles all the way down, and calls the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic wine a fairy tale, he also declares the scientific entities of space and time as equally mythical constructs. He is thus, cheekily, doubly agnostic.

Though religion and psychotropic drugs have shown him “a glowing light within,” took out all his pain, and changed the way [he] saw the world, they are still not satisfying answers to metaphysical questions. His response to our lack of sure and certain knowledge about ultimate realities is to cling to the particulars of daily life, to friendship (“But I swear that God is there every time I glare in the eyes of my best friend”) and to love (“But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life”), and, finally, to espouse a hippie ethos of just being chill and giving peace to everyone (“So go and try to have some fun showing warmth to everyone”).

It is interesting to compare this with Dolly Parton’s unusual Gospel song The Mystery of The Mystery, written by her longtime artistic partner Porter Wagoner. Whereas most Gospel music is a bold declaration of faith, this one squarely addresses every Christian’s struggle of faith in the face of incomplete knowledge.

The Mystery Of The Mystery

There are so many things that I don’t understand
And I search my mind to try to find an answer
But the more I search the less I seem to find out why
Like where where the wind goes, how does life begin
What happens when we die

The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown
Only God can know and man must not see
Great minds have tried but they will not find
The answer to the mystery of the mystery

Man will seek the mystic realms of the mystery
But their silent halls reveal not a sound
Many men will give their lives just to try to find
The answer to a mystery in their mind

The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown
Only God can know and man must not see
Great minds have tried but they will not find
The answer to the mystery of the mystery

It’s a straightforward but deceptively simple song. There is this baffling imperative statement in the chorus: “The mystery of the mystery must stay unknown / Only God can know and man must not see.” The song is not merely an acknowledgement nor passive acceptance of our lot of limited vision and limited knowledge, but declares that it must be so. It is what makes us human (not angels nor gods) that we face the hard questions of life without sure and certain answers. This struggle is what faith is all about. Had she lived in the Middle Ages, Dolly Parton with her tremulous singing voice would have been a great Christian mystic.

The turn to psychedelia in country music is not new. In the late 60s, Gram Parsons melded country with blues, folk, soul, and rock and called it the trippy moniker, Cosmic American Music, that gave rise to the modern country rock and alt-rock genres (Wikipedia). Perhaps for him, “cosmic” is just a cheeky term for drawing all American musical forms into the orbit of country music. But it also serendipitously evokes the starry skies and empty deserts of the Old West, the small, lonely towns in the middle of nowhere, the shamanism of the Native Americans, and the psychotropic agents they use to open the mind to the cosmos. In this sense, Simpson’s trippy take on outlaw country fits what Parsons inadvertently called cosmic.

The Promise, cover of 80s one-hit-wonder When In Rome

The current nostalgia for the retro is typically filtered through the lens of hipster irony. It is postmodern pastiche, a purely gestural appropriation, a wry play on bygone popular styles. To be serious, committed, or authentic is uncool. Hipsters are not real fans–lest they risk sentimentality–but nerd connoisseurs (e.g., Jack White) with a fetish for bric-a-bracs from the past. Thus, what were cheesy pop culture elements in the 1980s now reappear as ironic statements of uncool coolness on hipster tees. (This must be the reason for the mind-boggling revival of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) Outlaw country, like folk music, resists mere gestural appropriation because authenticity is built into its form. The audience can tell if it’s snake oil. While Simpson tweaks the outlaw form with his quirky New Age, hippie sensibility, there remains a core of heartland earnestness in his style that is identifiably country. I think this is what Simpson meant by metamodern, as the “oscillation between naivety and our current culture’s love for nostalgia.” When keeping up the sardonic pose becomes tiresome, it is time to hang up the snark, and listen to songs that are close to the heart.