For a while now I’ve been coveting an in-depth interview with the one and only Sturgill Simpson like a pregnant woman may covet cotton candy at 2 AM. I’d show up to his live shows with my stupid little palm-sized audio recorder at the ready, and though he’s always been a nice and cordial guy, as soon as I’d mention the word “interview,” I’d get a bit of a sideways look, chased by a courteous, but firm, “I’d prefer to let the music speak for itself.” Fair enough, because when Sturgill says the music should speak for itself, it does.
So on Saturday night when I trekked to historic Gruene Hall in Texas to watch Sturgill open for Charlie Robison, I didn’t even bother bringing my digital recorder. Sturgill said he was in kind of a bad mood before the show anyway after a long day of driving in from Western Texas. That all changed though when Sturgill and his band hit the stage, and became a part of the authentic and uplifting experience of entertaining an appreciative Gruene Hall crowd. Gruene’s old wooden floor filled with dancers and revelers who hit it off like fast friends with Sturgill’s youth-infused traditional country tunes.
After the show, Sturgill comes bouncing off the stage, signs a few CD covers, takes a pull off a Shiner beer and says, “Screw it, let’s do this. I’m in a good mood.” So there I go fumbling with my phone, looking for a recorder app, and next thing I know I’ve got the man cornered and answering questions about his new album High Top Mountain officially out June 11th, and various other sundry topics that have all been burning in our brains to be answered.
You were doing this thing called Sunday Valley before, and now this is your own band. What could you tell Sunday Valley fans to expect? Why go in this direction?
Well, frankly this is who I am. The guys that I met and formed that band with came from different backgrounds. I had to adapt my thing to certain styles of individuals in the band. It was a pretty fun sonic exploration, but ultimately just wasn’t fulfilling for me. I felt like I had done everything I was interested in that sonic landscape. I knew so many people, had friends in bands that did this one trick pony thing and got stuck in this niche and 15 years later they’re wondering why they weren’t any farther than they were a year after they started. Basically I got tired of yelling over the top of myself with all the loud guitar. It was so overpowering. I couldn’t touch on a lot of the subtleties in music that I really love which are traditional country and traditional bluegrass.
I don’t really consider myself a guitar player, especially after moving to Nashville. Some of my best friends are like my heroes now because there’s so many phenomenal players. I’m a songwriter and a singer, and if I have a talent, that would be it. And to not wholly put my focus on that would be a detriment to whatever I did musically. This is a much more honest representation of who I am, at least right now. I have the attention span of a 4-year-old. But I love all music, especially old soul and R&B, and traditional country. And I try to incorporate all those elements. This band is just where I am right now.
Sunday Valley was a band off and on for a period of about 7 years. In that 7 years we were only together cohesively as a band for probably a solid 1 1/2 to 2 years. The only reason I made that [Sunday Valley] record after moving to Nashville was because me and those guys had put so much effort into that band, at the very least, we had to record those songs, and archive of what we’d done. So it came to an end unfortunately after I felt it was long already over. And now this is where I’m at. I’m in a band literally playing with all of my best friends.
Were you not ready to be a professional musician until the “Sturgill Simpson” project?
No, probably not. I had to go make all the mistakes first, do it the wrong way. Spending years selling out shows in my hometown and wondering why nothing was moving forward. After about a month in Nashville, all those answers came rushing to the surface. And I had a lot of personal demons to work out, without going into any details. As a person, no, I was not ready. I would have self-destructed or destroyed it. All the music I grew up with and my family encouraged me to listen to, I just don’t hear that anymore. So this record was my effort to try to make the music I can’t find that I want to hear, filtered through stories about my life. That is what High Top Mountain is.
I would encourage anybody who likes what they hear with this record to expect anything but the same thing for the next record. I have no interest in doing the same thing twice. If you don’t adapt and change and grow, you might as well die. I don’t even consider myself a country artist. All good music to me is soul music.
You’re kind of part of this new independent underbelly of what’s going on in Nashville, but you also seem like a very private person. Do you feel like you are part of Nashville’s independent movement, or do you feel almost like it’s an accident that you’re there?
It wasn’t an accident that I’m there, it was very specific. My wife and I were living in Utah and I had this railroad job for about four years and I was miserable. I started writing again and playing music for the first time in years, and she said, “You’ve never really had a chance. You spent all your time in Lexington spinning your wheels. You’re going to wake up and be 40 and know that you never tried, and I’m stuck with your miserable ass for the rest of my life.” I didn’t know what else to do except to go to Nashville. So we sold everything we owned, gave the rest away, and packed up the Bronco and the dog and moved to Nashville. I don’t ever feel like I’m a part of anything because I never really leave the house. I’m pretty reclusive.
I have a working theory that 2013 is the “Year of the Song.” With your new direction and your new album, do you feel like it is more about the song instead of about the music or guitar?
It’s always about the song. Sunday Valley was about the song, it was just a much more violent representation of country. I was 25 when that band started and I was very angry. Now, I’m just not angry anymore. I think you can reach people talking to them a hell of a lot more than you can screaming at them. The song is the first, and the only thing that matters really. Really, if you want me to tell you how I feel about something, I think there’s a lot of anger, and resentment, and bitterness, and insecurity that I pick up on a lot. That’s why I don’t go out a lot and I don’t want to, because you get sucked into this cliquish game of insecurity, and none of it matters. Talking about shitty pop country, I mean yeah that stuff used to piss me off but now I just ignore it. Bad taste will always win. But I think people will just need to look a little harder for the stuff that touches them. Like “Life Ain’t Fair & The World I Mean.” I regret writing that song.
Is that why you changed the lyrics [to “Life Ain’t Fair & the World Is Mean”] a little bit?
I changed the lyrics because I thought they needed to be a little more applicable to my life. I know people say, “I like the original version.” But the Music Fog version is different from the original version. I like the original version better. The original version is the version I wrote when I sang it in my house the first time. [Music Fog] was a week later. The album was recorded 6 months later. People can always go back and listen to that version if they like it more. Personally I can’t listen to it ’cause it drags and the tempo is all over the place, and my vocals aren’t controlled. Now the version we played tonight is better than the one on the record. You’re not going to make everyone happy. I’m just trying to make me happy. People that like Sunday Valley are going to hear this record, and the first time they hear it, they’re going to want to hate it because it’s not going to be what they know. And change is a really scary thing to a lot of people. But I’m not interested in those people. I want to make country music for people who think they hate country music because they’ve never heard country music.