Sturgill Simpson ‘Metamodern Sounds In Country Music’ - Loose

This second album from Sturgill Simpson lives up to the promise of his debut. Producer Dave Cobb is again behind the desk and together  they have explored the fringes of traditional country music. This doesn’t mean that Simpson has strayed into the county-pop, southern rock and rap infused territory that seems the sound de jour in Nashville right now. Instead this is something more visionary and mildly lysergic. It was recorded quickly with his road band came off the road after a series of live dates. It is sharp, tight and most definitely countrified.

At the heart of this is the voice and songs of Simpson. The voice has the ring of authenticity, of someone steeped in the music he and his family grew up listening to. His phrasing may suggest some classic country singers but he is very quickly developing an individuality which makes him as distinctive as some of the singers he most admires. His need to move on and develop his music so that he is not repeating himself at this stage in his career is crucial to his progress. This second album is fundamentally coming from a similar place as High Top Mountain. There is a reflection of lives lived, emotion in turmoil, induced visionary experience but with a heart grounded in love.

The opening song, Turtles on The Way Down,  is accompanied by a video that is a visual equivalent of the sound. The lyrics here talk of “alien reptiles” and equally spacey drugs as well as Jesus, Buddha and the devil. That’s just the first song - not too many tan lines or tailgates here folks. So we have a tight country band, a strong singer, an off beat set of lyrics set in a world that is somewhat out of this world. From then on we take in a Life of Sin, Living The Dream, the Long White Line of life through to the final testament that It Ain’t All Flowers. Amen to that. The band here may not include such former A-teamers as Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who graced the debut, but they do an equally good job of making the album a strongsonic experience. Laur Joamets on guitars, Kevin Black on bass and Miles Miller on drums are joined by keyboard player Mike Webb and producer Dave Cobb. Together with Simpson on acoustic guitar they deliver the goods in an organic and unforced way.

The are two outside songs among the ten tracks here (there’s an acoustic hidden track at the end). Buford Abner’s trucking song Long White Line and a version of the band When in Rome’s The Promise and both fit perfectly on the album, showing that Simpson can easily deliver a credible and creative take on a song he loves just as he does in his live set. The Promise is a sad ballad played straight and is a perfect act of contrition that serves to show the emotional depth and soulfulness of Sturgill’s vision. This definitely connects with Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, another album from another time but one that also had it’s own vision. Comparisons abound with Simpson’s voice but there is as much bluegrass influence in it as there is straight country. A certain soulfillness also plays it’s part in shaping such a powerful vehicle.

There are moments of the elemental in the sound - like at the end of Long White Line and especially on the (official) closer It Ain’t All Flowers where the full flavour of psychedelic sonics are unleashed musically and vocally and thus ending the album the same way it started with a “what the hell was that!” question that will have you coming back to the album to experience it’s many pleasures a metaphysical pain killer.

Sturgill Simpson 'High Top Mountain -Thirty Tigers

Count Simpson among a handful of like-minded acts like Dave Gleason, Moot Davis, Mike Stinson, Tillford Sellars, Daniel Romano and veteran torch bearer Marty Stuart who want to play, write and perform classic country music in a way that the powers that be neither want or seem to accept anymore.

These 12 original songs are steeped in the sound of the past but are given a jolt of today's energy that takes them out of pastiche or parody and into something more relevant. Yes I have heard the arguments that country music must change to survive, but I question when the survival throws the baby out with the bath water. I have never met a Taylor Swift fan who has discovered real country music through Swift’s tunes. It reminds me of the excuses given that line-dancing would expand the country audience, which is something that I never found to be the case.

Back to the music that Sturgill Simpson has recorded on his debut album; pedal steel is well to the fore,  and when it is played by Robbie Turner you know you're in safe hands. Add the piano of Hargus "Pig" Robbins and the other fine players and you understand these guys know exactly what they need to deliver. Recorded at Hillbilly Central and Falling Rock studios and produced by Dave Cobb, who has helmed a wide range of music as producer, guitarist and bassist. Here Cobb has given the songs what they need; warmth, clarity and energy. There are subtle uses of Mellotron strings on some tracks to give them a touch of countrypolitan. Speaking of which; whatever happened to the great Mike Ireland who explored that sound some years back?

The songs are all written about the concerns of being a working musician, the working man and someone who is working out relationships and reasons to be who he is. The title of the opening song kind of sums the album up in many ways Life ain't Fair and the WorldiIs Mean. A song like Old King Coal considers the life of a miner. Sitting Here without You is classic heartbreak. And so it goes across this eminently playable album. 

Sturgill Simpson comes from a small town in Kentucky and the album is named for a cemetery where many of his family are buried,  but as the cover illustration indicates this is not in any way a depressing collection.  Rather, there is a positivity and colour to the performance that rings of integrity. He has a voice that echoes other classic country singers (not least Waylon Jennings) but one that will be become as distinctive as his heroes given time.