Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Sturgill Simpson, "High Top Mountain"

Sturgill Simpson’s brand of country is undeniably old-fashioned, dripping with honky-tonk spirit, but don’t expect him to try to cash in on it by singing about what an outlaw he is.

That’s made clear on the album opener, “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean.” The song starts with a record executive telling him what to do to sell more records. In response, Sturgill sings, “The most outlaw thing that I ever done was give a good woman a ring. That’s the way it goes, life ain’t fair and the world is mean.”

The practical streak shown on that song follows through the rest of the album as Simpson rambles across the country landscape visiting the bluegrass of his Appalachian roots and the Texas honky tonks with heartfelt ballads and just good, old-fashioned country sounds.

There’s an almost gospel flavor to the second song, “Railroad of Sin,” a rollicking bluegrass-influenced number with plenty of energy and the first taste of Simpson’s hot Telecaster licks.

Another side of Simpson comes out on “The Storm” which rolls in ominously like its namesake. It’s far from the first song to compare love gone bad to a storm, but it’s certainly one of the better written, and one of the best lyrical turns on a record full of good ones. Simpson delivers those lines with a heartfelt authenticity that makes you believe it’s something he’s experienced himself.

High Top Mountain can certainly get just as rowdy as any of the classic outlaw singers. “You Can Have the Crown” rocks like an old-school Waylon Jennings tune, and at first blush it might seem like one of those outlaw songs — as it opens with references to weed and pills and robbing a bank to pay the bills. You soon realize that it’s all tongue-in-cheek, though, especially by the time the off-color chorus rolls around.

“Some Days” opens with an almost dance beat that morphs into another one of those Waylon rhythms as Simpson bemoans the up and down nature of life and the people around you, and he also works a jab at Nashville in for good measure.

“Poor Rambler” romps with another dose of that bluegrass feel, primarily in Simpson’s vocal line, while “Sitting Here Without You” finds Simpson with a little growl in his voice both mourning and angry at the loss of a cheating woman.

While the uptempo numbers provide plenty of good-timing fun, the centerpiece of this album is one of those more somber, low key moments — “Hero,” a heartfelt and moving tribute to a father. The song really puts a focus on the kind of songwriting that Simpson is capable of: a simple, classic country melody that’s emotionally wrenching in its lyrics and Simpson’s simple delivery. There’s nothing fancy about the song, but it still pulls the heartstrings with its sincerity.

Simpson’s previous band, Sunday Valley, was impressive but a little more rowdy and rock-influenced than this record. With his solo album, Simpson simplifies his sound to some extent with very good results. He still tears it up on the Telecaster from time to time, and there’s a little bit of thumbing his nose at stuffy traditionalism, while at the same time showing a great respect for the tradition itself.

The music on High Top Mountain is honest, real and from the heart, and there’s more depth in the weakest song on this record than in the best song on country radio today.

With the passing of George Jones recently, I saw a lot of references to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and a lot of lamenting the fact that so much of country music today is no more than glossy pop. The guys who can fill those shoes are out there — guys like Simpson, Chris Knight and others. You’ve just got to do a little digging to find them. It’s well worth the effort.

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