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Simpson finds an unorthodox niche in country music

Sturgill Simpson after soundcheck at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook in  Gilford, N.H.

Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

Sturgill Simpson after soundcheck at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook in Gilford, N.H.

It’s been a real whirlwind these last couple months for Sturgill Simpson. His wife just gave birth to their first baby. His band made its debut on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

Oh, and at age 36, he’s finally embarking on a bona fide career.

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“I feel like I’ve had a ‘career’ about 90 days,” jokes the stone-faced newcomer, whose second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” is suddenly being heralded as an antithesis to contemporary country’s more vapid pursuits. Simpson plays Wednesday at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton and Thursday at the Brighton Music Hall.

The title of “Metamodern Sounds,” with its sly reference to Ray Charles’s classic “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” is an intentional muddle, says Simpson, sitting in his band’s dressing room at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion at Meadowbrook, an hour before a recent set in support of the Zac Brown Band. Mixing a recording style straight out of Texas 1972 with songs about metaphysics and existentialism, the record “doesn’t really know what it wants,” he says.

But Simpson himself has a pretty good idea, or at least he knows what he doesn’t want. Halfway through the sessions for his first album, 2013’s “High Top Mountain,” producer Dave Cobb — who has also cut great records with Jason Isbell and Jamey Johnson — figured it out.

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“He realized I have no interest in a commercial career, making those kind of records,” recalls the singer. For their second album together, “there really wasn’t any conversation. He just said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna get weird. I get it.’ ”

Not that Simpson wants to be tagged “the weird country guy,” exactly. “I hardly think talking about Emerson is weird,” he says. “I’m shocked and kind of surprised by everyone viewing some of the lyrical things as ‘progressive.’ It’s 2014, and you can’t say ‘LSD’ in a song without people going ‘oooh!’ ”

Simpson does, however, like to keep people guessing, says Cobb, on the phone a few days later.

“The first time you meet him, he comes off like a hard-to-communicate, aloof guy,” he says. They were introduced a few years ago at a Billy Joe Shaver show; Cobb was sitting with Johnson and Shooter Jennings, who pointed at Simpson and called the unknown artist the “best singer in Nashville.”

Though Simpson claims he was intimidated by the group, Cobb remembers that he “didn’t let on at all. He came up and just looked kind of grumpy. He has a certain endearing quality about him.”

These days Cobb thinks of the singer, now his good friend, as the “Robert Duvall of country, kind of a shapeshifter.” He could pack up and disappear at any time, he says.

In fact, Simpson was only recently working an archetypal country-song job: overhauling trains in a Salt Lake City railyard. Cobb says when they met, he was still wearing his train conductor’s jacket.

Simpson loved the railroad, until he took a management job. “I was working 80 hours a week, getting screamed at on conference calls by people I’d never meet,” he says. “I was really unsatisfied.”

Though he’d played guitars since he was a boy and had led a bluegrass band called Sunday Valley before leaving his home state of Kentucky, he’d sold all his guitars but one, a Martin. It sat in its case in the closet for more than two years. Frustrated by the job, he took it out one day and started writing songs again.

His wife (whom he politely declines to name) urged him to pursue music before it was too late. “She said, ‘You don’t exactly suck at this,’” he deadpans. “She encouraged me to wake up at 40 knowing I tried to do something I really love.”

It was instantly clear to Cobb, the producer, that this stranger might have one of the all-time great country voices. “It’s classic as the day is long,” he raves, mentioning Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and John Prine by way of comparison. “The guy picks up a guitar and plays Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying,’ and he’ll knock you in the dirt.”

For “High Top Mountain,” Cobb brought in some Music Row ringers, including 76-year-old keyboardist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who was fresh off his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His career goes all the way back to George Jones’s first No. 1, “White Lightning.”

Gilford, NH - Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014: Country-music artist Sturgill Simpson performing with his band at Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion. Sturgill Simpson opened for the Zac Brown Band at the Pavilion. CREDIT: Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe

Simpson during his set at the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion.

But if Simpson’s voice could have drifted in anytime in the past 60 years, he also has a bit of a punk attitude that gives him his edge, according to Cobb.

“The second record is extremely selfish,” the producer says, from the confounding lyrics of the lead track, “Turtles All the Way Down,” and the arch humor of “Living the Dream” to the indulgent psychedelic breakdown of “It Ain’t All Flowers.”

The band on this album is Simpson’s touring group. It features Telecaster master Laur Joamets, who looks the part in a 10-gallon hat but actually grew up in Estonia, blissfully unfamiliar with country music.

The bandleader is already scheming about the tones and ideas of his next few records. (They’ve already started cutting the follow-up to “Metamodern Sounds,” Cobb says, and hope to cut as many as three albums by next year.)

“All my favorite albums are concept albums or had an underlying unity to them,” Simpson explains. While other artists are emphasizing singles in the age of downloading, he says, “that’s a pretty short-sighted business model.

“America,” he predicts, “is going to outgrow that short attention span, skipping tracks and all that.”

For all of Simpson’s deep reading habits, his explorations in consciousness and his white Chuck Taylors, there’s no mistaking “Metamodern Sounds” as anything but a hardcore country record.

“I’m always gonna be country,” he says in his coal-country drawl. “I can’t open my mouth and do anything else.”

More information:

Sturgill Simpson

At: Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Wednesday at 7 p.m., $15-$18, 413-586-8686, www.iheg.com;

Brighton Music Hall, Allston, Thursday at 7 p.m., $13, 617-779-0140, www.crossroadspresents.com/brighton-music-hall/

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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