by Dustin Williams
Sturgill Simpson is a 36-year-old, country music singer-songwriter originally from Jackson, Kentucky. He currently lives in Nashville although apparently not because of any affinity with the “local” music industry there. Over the last few years, he seems to have molded his own brand of anti-establishment, cosmic country music. Much like Gram Parsons (who happens to be an influence of Sturgill’s) did forty years earlier, Sturgill blends sounds of outlaw country with cosmic overtones that lend more to the psychedelic guitar sounds of the acid-fueled sixties.
He’s got two albums out, High Top Mountain (2013) and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014). Recorded in Nashville, both records are available and sound great on vinyl. They’re the kinds of albums you can put on and listen to front-to-back and wish could be included on the soundtrack of your life. These records will find their place right at home in any true Americana or classic country collection. Oh yeah, and did I mention how good they sound… Metamodern was nominated for a 2014 Grammy for Best Americana Album.
You may know that Sturgill’s first appearance in Austin was at a small show in the Fall of 2013 for something like eleven people at the Rattle Inn on West Sixth. Mike of Mike and the Moonpies helped him get the gig. Since then he’s been all over the place, including stops at Letterman, Conan, and ACL Live opening for Willie Nelson, and landing most recently back in Austin this past weekend for two sold-out shows at Stubb’s outdoor amphitheater and a taping at Austin City Limits on Wednesday inside Moody theater.
The Sound Floor had the chance to experience this rare talent in-person at both of those Stubb’s shows (for my money there’s not a better experience to be had in Austin, Texas than seeing one of your favorite bands put on a show at Stubb’s). The band did not disappoint. From the first chord to the end of the encore set, Sturgill and the stellar musicians with him on stage presented all the facts necessary to make the case that they are fucking badasses.
Speaking of the band backing him, they’re phenomenal. All competent players in their own right, they perfectly complemented the performance. Most notably, Laur Joamets gets the crunchy award for laying down absolute monster lead guitar solos all night long. Transforming from soaring, loose slide-guitar melodies to almost perpetual, bluegrass-style picking, his telecaster sounded more like four guitars than one.
Every tune was met from the crowd with grand ovation. The raucous praise likely reached its height when Sturgill acknowledged his fans’ impact on his career choices and declared, “With the help of you people we stuck it straight up Nashville’s ass!” Recently, the band was successful in eluding the machine that is the Nashville country music industry and signed a record deal with Atlantic Records, a move taken from the playbook of his outlaw forefather, Willie Nelson, and in the spirit of Johnny Cash.
One of the unique things about Sturgill that’s seemingly more and more rare in music today is that he’s an adaptive and versatile musician. One that shows many sides to their craft and different flavors of performances. Sturgill’s not just a singer with some catchy tunes that sound pretty good when you’ve had about four Lonestar tallboys. Don’t get me wrong, he sounds great when you’ve had four Lonestar tallboys...he’s also a true musician, and that is abundantly clear from the outset of his live performance. Together with the band, he’s a consummate professional. When the opener finished his set, Sturgill was out on stage singing the first song in about four seconds flat. It’s just no frills badass, unapologetic music sans the diva act. Even the words are genuine and humble, bringing people together across generations and traditional genre divides.
From the first three notes he sings in “Turtles All the Way Down” on Metamodern you can tell that this is something special. Also on that record is a cover of When In Rome’s “The Promise.” This version of the song−which recently has been most famous for being in the closing scene of Napoleon Dynamite−demonstrates his range, revealing both a somewhat tender and a somewhat haunting side of the performer. For some reason I bet Roy Orbison would have really dug this stuff.
As further evidence of his increasing popularity among folks who know what the eff is up, Sturgill will be hitting the festival circuit this summer with stops at Coachella (April 12 and 19), Stagecoach (April 24), Jazz Fest (April 30), Free Press (June 6), Governors Ball (June 7), Bonnaroo (June 11), Firefly (June 20), Big Barrel (June 26), FarmBorough (June 27), Lollapalooza, and so on, and so on… (seriously there are at least 10 others). Oh yeah, and in the middle of all that he’s playing Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic and Red Rocks (July 11).
Willie’s Picnic bills him along with Asleep at the Wheel, Eric Church, Merle Haggard, Kacey Musgraves, Leon Russell, and Jamey Johnson, among others. Tickets for Willie’s Picnic go on sale THIS Friday April 10th at 10am from livenation.com or ticketmaster.com and at $35 for the lawn seats, it’s not a bad deal.
Finally, make sure you check out Sturgill’s NPR Music - Tiny Desk Concert. It really provides an up-close, personal window into the artist and his music in ways other live performances don’t quite capture.