Words by Ryan McKeeman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Photography by Dustin Williams (email@example.com)
“Somebody told me there ain’t no horns in country music. Well, somebody needs to tell Merle Haggard, ‘cuz that’s who I learned that shit from.”
While those may not have been the exact words Sturgill Simpson used Thursday night at ACL Live, the first of two sold out shows, they're close enough. And on an absolutely beautiful night in Austin they set the tone for what was to be a poetic, energetic and even somewhat apologetic - though not necessary - performance.
Fresh on the heels of his first major label release A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic) - a blend of rebellious honky tonk with a soothing soul sound somewhat reminiscent of Motown (two of Simpson's band members hail from Detroit, in fact) - Sturgill is currently enjoying the most success of his career.
What he's not enjoying it seems, like so many of us this time of year, are Central Texas allergies. But all is well, because on the few occasions when his powerful and generally spot-on voice may have wavered, 3,000 or so of his closest friends were there to help.
The sold out crowd was treated to the full eight tracks of A Sailor's Guide to Earth Thursday night (including the incredible In Bloom cover), complete with a horn trio from New Orleans and half a rhythm section from Detroit (keys, bass). This funky and soulful instrumentation added a new layer of depth and adaptation to an already distinguished outlaw country brand that Sturgill developed in Nashville alongside producer/engineer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell) and became known for after the grammy-nominated release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014). He played the hits from his sophomore release and even got through a couple tracks from his debut album, High Top Mountain (2013).
Of all the changes Sturgill has made in his evolution as an artist - signing with a major label, adding funky soul sounds to outlaw country - some things remain the same. Lead guitarist Laur Joamets still brings tireless licks to the group's sound, seamlessly switching between pedal steel, Fender Telecaster, and a full lineup of beautifully tuned instruments. Laur hails all the way from Estonia and Sturgill shared a heartwarming story of collaboration with his lead guitarist that started three years ago on a Skype call where Sturgill promised Laur, "If you get on a plane and come to America, I'm gonna change your fuckin' life!" Nothing could be more prophetic.
Sturgill Simpson is no longer a secret, folks. Measuring his impact in Austin is easy. In 2013, he played his first gig here for a crowd of maybe two dozen people at Rattle Inn. In 2015, he sold out Stubb's outdoor amphitheater. And just this week, he sold out two back-to-back nights at ACL Live at Moody Theater. This year, he's on the European festival circuit where he will tour the new album in between festival weekends this summer. Sadly, we will miss him at ACL Festival this time.