Sturgill Simpson Fitzgerald's November 16, 2014
Artists like Sturgill Simpson don't come along very often, but they do show up enough to prevent those of us who contend we love "real" country music from truly despairing. But honestly, what does that even mean anymore?
In an age dominated by Florida Georgia Line, who at least has a little personality (grating though it may be to some), and a slew of gym-chiseled stars whose anonymity is eclipsed only by the banality of their material, times were looking pretty grim for lovers of the twang. Then the proudly unsigned Simpson showed up on last year's High Top Mountain, looking like a stereotypical record-store clerk and sounding like the love child of Waylon Jennings and his fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall.
Maybe in the past, his latest album, this year's Metamodern Sounds In Country Music would have been a game-changer, flying up the charts out of left field and causing the scales to drop from label executives' eyes. Then the publishing houses would quit minting so many songs about tailgating in favor of...coal mining? Sitting around waiting to die? OK, maybe not.
Now in his mid-thirties, Simpson is playing chess whereas his would-be contemporaries are stuck playing touch football. With a minimum of artifice, his songs cut to the quick of what it means to draw breath in the 21st-century U.S.A., where all too many people worry about where their next dollar is coming from, and even those who are getting by lose faith in incompetent government officials and a morally bankrupt pop culture more by the hour. What's a thinking man to do except light up another bowl?
But already I've started intellectualizing Simpson too much, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. Sunday night, in front of an upstairs Fitz audience so packed there was hardly enough room to scratch your nose, he and his three bandmates tapped into something more primal, the adrenaline charge that results from watching four talented, precision-tuned musicians play the daylights out of their instruments for a solid hour and a half. If they happened to drop a half-dozen or so nearly forgotten country and bluegrass standards along the way, and about as many original tunes that amounted to the same thing, so much the better.
Sunday's program more or less came from three columns: frenzied, bluegrass-derived stomps and reels meant to work the crowd into maximum froth; time-freezing slow numbers that allowed Simpson's lead guitarist to wring both tears and cotton candy from his Telecaster, some of it downright heart-rending; and gruff, mid-tempo songs often sung through clenched teeth that had the old-timers in the crowd nodding with approval.
Then he smartly sprinkled in covers like Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes," played straight; the Stanley Brothers' "Medicine Springs," which disappeared into a wormhole of kaleidoscopic guitar; Lefty Frizzell's heartsick "I Never Go Around Mirrors"; and, most impressively, late Austin progressive-country picker Steve Fromholz's "I'd Have to Be Crazy," which came late in the show and soothed what was by then a crowd verging on delirium.
The song that probably most put Simpson on the mainstream radar, When In Rome's '80s dance-pop staple "The Promise," also came 100 percent irony-free, delivered as a devoted vow that far transcended novelty to stand alongside Waylon Jennings' best outlaw love songs. It also earned the distinction of the being the night's only song where the singalong chorus was more female than male.
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He did do some actual Waylon, too, with a game if begrudging "Waymore's Blues," saying "we got so sick of hearing we sound like Waylon we decided to start singing one of his songs." But he really didn't need to. By then there had been so many little moments in Simpson's own songs it was almost an afterthought: the sublime bridge of "Living the Dream"; gospel fervor of "A Little Light"; rockabilly abandon of "Life of Sin" and some killer flatpicking on "Poor Rambler." No wonder the Kentucky state seal was on the kick drum.
Considering the caliber of performance Simpson put on Sunday, it's all too tempting to look at him as some kind of messiah sent down from the mountain to rescue mainstream country from its current state, where triviality and venality abound. But that might be making a mistake.
Better for him to stay on the fringes, charming the hipsters and confounding the old-timers who have trouble believing artists under 40 are capable of such depth at a relatively callow age. Simpson may not be the new face of country music in 2014, but he could well be its new conscience, which might be an even better outcome.
Personal Bias: King turd of shit mountain. If you want it, you can have the crown.
The Crowd: Mostly scruffy dudes, most of whom resembled Simpson and his bandmates -- except not quite as well-dressed.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I'd pay $500 for somebody to go downstairs and kill that power" -- Simpson's adverse reaction to L.A. indie band the Allah-La's, who were playing simultaneously; someone nearby immediately said, "I'll do it for free."
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