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photo by Rego Sterchi
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photo by Andrea Behrends
Old Crow Medicine Show
Sturgill Simpson, who’s set to appear at the Altria Theater on Sunday (May 3) with Old Crow Medicine Show, may not know he has something in common with Richmond.
Lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as a country music savior, Simpson’s breakout hit “Turtles All the Way Down” from his album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music draws on a story that has appeared in various forms. The song, cliff-noted, discusses the relationship between space and time, and how the two together alter, or even assist with, life experience. The premise (and trying to understand it) is not new. But there’s a chance that the story (and maybe even the theory) could have originated here.
“The old original idea which was enunciated first in India, that the world was flat and stood on the back of an elephant, and the elephant did not have anything to stand on, was the world's thought for centuries. That story is not as good as the Richmond Negro preacher's who said the world was flat and stood on a turtle. They asked him what the turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and they asked what that turtle stood on and he said another turtle, and finally they got him in a hole and he said, ‘I tell you there are turtles all the way down.’ ”
Now, who that preacher might have been is unclear, and there are other variations of the story in which the turtle quote comes from an elderly woman who questions a scientist giving a lecture about how the earth revolves around the sun. One version involves Harvard psychologist William James, who had an interest in Christian Science and also wrote about elephants and turtles in his book The Meaning of Truth (edited by his son, Henry, in 1905).
Another Richmond connection pops up with William James’ son. An Atlantic Monthly article from 1946, "Henry James as a Landlord," shows correspondence with a renter in a letter dated in 1905 sent from the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Just coincidence, perhaps. But could Henry James have heard the story about the “Richmond Negro preacher” and turtles in Richmond and relayed it to his father? Or did Sabin tell William James the turtle story? Or vice versa? Either way, it’s interesting to think about Richmond’s possible role in the turtle stack explanation.
In an interview with NPR music correspondent Ann Powers last year, Simpson says, “To me, ‘Turtles’ is about giving your heart to love and treating everyone with compassion and respect no matter what you do or don't believe. The cosmic turtle is from a much quoted story found in publications throughout modern physics and philosophy, even ancient theology, that now essentially serves as a comedic picture or expression of a much grander idea.”
Food for thought, indeed. Simpson had been scheduled for a show at the Broadberry in February, but had to cancel when a band member got sick. Since then, he’s received a Grammy nomination for best Americana album for Metamodern Sounds, which was also named the top album of the year by American Songwriter. Old Crow’s Remedy won a Grammy for best folk album, and both albums showed up on Country Weekly’s best country albums of 2014 list.
Well-known for adapting the Bob Dylan bootleg “Rock Me Mama” into the hit “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow has substantial ties to Virginia. While the band is based out of Nashville, Tennessee, two of the founding members grew up in Harrisonburg — Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua. Tickets for Sunday’s 7:30 p.m. show are $33 to $55. altriatheater.com.
Want a little preview? Here's Simpson's "Turtles All the Way Down":