A fine addition to the Loose Records roster, Sturgill Simpson’s story so far could almost be the first reel of a Hollywood movie about a country singer. Born in Kentucky, raised in a music loving family and tutored in country classics by his grandfather, young Sturgill grows up wanting to be a musician. It ain’t easy however and he takes work where he can get it spending four years with the Union Pacific Railroad and even suffers a spell in the navy. He ends up in Nashville where he leads a band called Sunday Valley who eventually become Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys. In 2012 he’s quoted as saying “I am attempting to make what I believe to be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years.” Well, Hollywood isn’t real but the story is and while High Top Mountain might not attain the heights predicted by its creator there’s no doubt that Simpson’s album is a classic reclamation of country music from the big hat brigade delivered with the muscle and grit that fired Waylon Jennings on Lonesome, On’ry & Mean leavened with his Kentucky heritage as he cites Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley as influences. The album title proclaims his home territory “High Top Mountain is located near the Kentucky River on Stray Branch in Breathitt County, Kentucky and is home to High Top Cemetery, the final resting place of many past generations of my family.”
Recorded in Nashville and featuring country legends Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano and steel guitarist Robby Turner, Simpson turns in 12 songs that in turn barrel at you with a truck driving force or tug at the heartstrings. The telecaster/steel/piano interplay is invigorating and hell raising and one wonders just how good this would be in a live setting as sparks fly throughout the album. Simpson’s voice carries just the right weight required while his writing is top notch. Top of the ladder here is The Storm which lopes along like a classic Jennings song, muscular and lithe it stealthily builds to a climatic guitar and pedal steel exchange as the lyrics invoke elemental nature and yoke it to the protagonists’ heartbreak. A mellotron adds a sweeping vista to the song and there are moments when it recalls The Grateful Dead’s jaunts into country.
Simpson can parlay sad songs with some excellence, Old King Coal laments the loss of the mining industry while Water In A Well weeps wonderfully. Hero celebrates the grandfather who guided the young Simpson in his musical education. It’s the type of song that can easily become somewhat maudlin but the passion involved in the vocals and the splendid pedal steel lift the song above platitude. However the highlights here are the no shit tough talking romps and Simpson punches well above his weight with some excellent choices. Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean opens the album with an autobiographical bent as he sings of being coached in writing outlaw songs as steel guitar curls around the meaty beat. Railroad Of Sin hammers along with the steel imitating a bullet train as the band go into overdrive. You Can have The Crown is on the face of it just another pell mell fast paced country rocker but the band are really shit hot here with fireworks erupting from the guitars while Simpson draws a picture of a feckless dreamer who spends his time on the internet waiting for God to throw him a bone. He ends the album with two covers. Poor Rambler races like a greyhound as Simpson yells the lyrics over rushed acoustic strumming before guitar and piano dart in and out with some inspired and ferocious soloing. I’d Have To be Crazy lowers the tempo as Simpson visits that other country outlaw, Willie Nelson. A lovely come down following its frenetic predecessor it allows the band to shine as an organ offers a spiritual pillow as Simpson delves into southern soul.
High Top Mountain might not be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years or it might. Time will tell. In the meantime it’s sufficient to say that it is country music of the highest calibre, avoiding false patriotism and studio schmaltz and if you dig Waylon or Willie or Cash or Hank then you should investigate this. Simpson is appearing in Glasgow at the Admiral bar on Sunday 23rd February and it may be a unique chance to see him in such an intimate setting.