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Real country fans are just going to have to get comfortable with the new reality that their favorite music is on a surprising uptick. No more mopey faces, no more plotting midnight graffiti runs to Music Row as retribution for keeping your favorite artists down. Regardless of what kind of filth is still transpiring on country radio, a new spring of vibrant, independent country music is blooming and finding surprising support, and there may not be a better example of this new season than Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson and his breakout album High Top Mountain.
The front man for the wanton and reckless Sunday Valley project is all growns up, and lays down a fiercely traditional, hardcore honky tonk album slathered with steel guitar, country keys from Hall of Famer Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and whatever else is called for and in ample measure to give life and color to Sturgill’s blue ribbon offerings.
There’s very little that is gray about the Sturgill Simpson experience. Mid tempos and mild themes need not apply. Either he’s barreling down on you like a freight train at a breakneck tempo, or he’s grabbing hold of ventricles and tugging hard. This isn’t too far off from the Sunday Valley approach, but like Sturgill says in the High Top Mountain song “Time After All,” “I’m sick of the clanging, can’t take no more banging. I’m tired of yelling over the top of that backline.” With Sunday Valley, you heard. With Sturgill Simpson, you listen. Subtly and the importance of songcraft is more respected on High Top Mountain, without fully tempering the fever that still boils behind Sturgill’s eyes.
The Waylon comparisons already abound with High Top Mountain, in both style and sound, which shows you that the slightly more settled approach to the music did its job of emphasizing the best parts of Sturgill’s music instead of having them blurred out. Still the songs of High Top Mountain come at you hard and fast, touching every point on the emotional array, and shifting gears from slow and sad, to fast and frenzied with surprising alacrity.
Though established Sturgill fans may prefer a different version of the “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” opening track, fresh ears will feast on its cunning lyrics and crafty pedal-steel break. “Railroad of Sin” and “You Can Have The Crown” are downright barn burning good times, with the latter providing what may turn out be one the album’s biggest lyrical takeaways, “So Lord if I could just get me a record deal, I might not have to worry about my next meal, but I’d still be trying to figure out what the hell rhymes with ‘Bronco.’”
The other side of the spectrum is represented in the heartfelt “Water in a Well,” and the deeply-personal tribute “Hero.” There’s a lot of coal dust smeared on these songs, from the opening track that talks about Sturgill’s mother being a coal miner’s daughter, to the heart-wrenching “Old King Coal.” It’s seems only appropriate that the heart of High Top Mountain would be a big black nugget considering Sturgill’s Kentucky roots.
And the scariest thing is that however good this album is, Sturgill probably still left some talent on the shelf. He’ll tell you his guitar playing is novice compared to the caliber of pickers he’s surrounded with in his new home of Nashville, but I have to respectfully disagree. Though technically he may be junior to some players, when it comes to taste and originality, Sturgills bluegrass-inspired style of takeoff Telecaster is something few of the slickest session players could ever touch. You only get a nibble of this when Sturgill is holding an acoustic, but it’s give and take because the acoustic allows you to focus more on the song.
Not every track on High Top Mountain is world beating. “Sitting Here Without You” seems a little cliché. Some ears may get the wrong impression from the use of Mellotron on some tracks—an analog and mechanical tape-based organ-like instrument that re-creates the sound of an orchestra. Some may mistake it for synthesizer, some may think it hits too close to “The Nashville Sound.” But for those who pick up on it and identify the tone, it’s a cool little treat that gives High Top Mountain a vintage country feel without the stuffiness of an actual string section, elevating the cool factor of this album even further.
Emerging from the coal region of Kentucky, to working on trains in Utah, to Nashville, TN to tackle the nasty business of trying to make it in music, Sturgill’s path has been windy, but like the stitches on the cover of High Top Mountain, it has lead to a sunny ending of seeing the realizations of his dreams—dreams that we all benefit from in the form of a great new gift of country music.
Two guns up!
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