Album and Song Reviews

Better late than never for an album like this one: Sturgill Simpson’s 2013 “High Top Mountain”

This is a half-assed review because the CD is from 2013. But it deserves to be whole-assed, because that CD is one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time.

Sturgill Simpson High Top MountainSturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain is just about as good as it ever gets. If I had made a list of the best albums of 2013, it would have been #2, behind only Jason Isbell’s Southeastern but beating Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, and even Guy Clark. I bought my copy at a Simpson show in D.C. in November and haven’t looked back since.

I’m writing this review so late only to help me prep for my next review — Sturgill’s new 2014 release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. I’m going to quick hit each track one by one, but skip most overarching notes, other than to say this is a true outlaw record (even if he does sing “the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done was give a good woman a ring”) – and not like the faux “new outlaws” like Eric Church. When I first heard Sturgill sing and his band play in that bbq joint basement, I said “Holy crap they sound just like Waylon,” and most other critics have said the same. But that’s really an unfair thing to say and I need to stop, because despite the similarities, Sturgill is his own singer and definitely his own writer. He writes great songs, and knows how to sing them with soul.

It’s the opening guitar blast of “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean,” it’s the growling on “Sitting Here Without You,” it’s the pacing and chorus lyrics on “Some Days.” The emotional loneliness of heartache we’ve all felt that is captured so perfectly in several of these songs. The fast tempo and steel guitars of “You Can Have the Crown” are enthralling. References to Baghdad and the Internet that keep it fresh and relevant. And everything, just everything about “Water in a Well” and “Time after All.” Am I gushing? I’m gushing. I love this album, especially for a solo debut where the artist wrote all but two of the tracks.

As for those two tracks – holy cow he lets loose on Ralph Stanley’s “Poor Rambler!” The other is the closer, Steven Fromholz’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” where Sturgill’s voice is just about perfect. Fromholz unfortunately passed away this year in a tragic hunting accident, but I’m glad he got to hear his music honored this way first (though apparently he didn’t like it). It’s really unfair to compare either cover to its original (or to Willie Nelson’s version of “I’d Have to Be Crazy”) because the styles are just so incredibly different — but if pressed, I would prrrrrobably say I prefer Stanley’s “Poor Rambler” but Sturgill’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy.”

Other than the Stanley comparison, the only less-than-positive thing I’ll say about High Top Mountain, and it isn’t even negative, is that I’d love it if Sturgill would try his hand at writing and singing some ballads. That would really bring him back to the older feel he told his producer he wanted. “Old King Coal” and “Hero” both come close but don’t quite check that box. “Hero,” about Sturgill’s grandfather, is a helluva song that reminds me of my own amazing grandfather John Mascarella, the greatest man I’ve ever known, but other than verse two it’s still ultimately describing a great man rather than telling his story. (Don’t get me wrong, I love that song, I’m just saying, it doesn’t check the ballad box.)

Five whiskey bottles out of five – and note that the digital copy is $2 cheaper on Sturgill’s site than on iTunes. It’s independently produced, so buying direct from the artist matters.

“High Top Mountain” was produced by Dave Cobb at Falling Rock and Hillbilly Central, both in Nashville, for Sturgill’s own independent label, “High Top Mountain Records.” It features Hall of Fame session musician Hargus “Pig” Robbins (his first major recording was Jones’s “White Lightning”) on piano; Chris Powell on drums; Waylon Jennings guitarist Robby Turner and Leroy Powell on steel guitar, Turner and Brian “Freedom Eagle Bear” Allen on bass, Bobby “Diamond Bob” Emmett on organ and Mellotron, and Cobb on 12-string electric guitar.

Carrying on a Proud Tradition – Album Review: Willie Watson, “Folk Singer, Vol. 1”

Willie Watson, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, released his first solo album on May 6, entitled “Folk Singer, Vol. 1” and recorded at David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville. All ten of the songs are classic folk or blues tunes – none original – and many are not particularly well known. I’ve listened to the album five times, and though I didn’t like it the first time, I’ve liked it every single time since.

The album is extremWillie Watson Folk Singer Vol 1 Album Coverely sparse, and Watson’s voice is every bit as distinctive – and almost as old-timey (in a very different way) – as Pokey LaFarge’s. I have to admit, I don’t personally care for that combination of both high AND nasally, which is what grabbed me on the first listen – but I really respect this work, and I applaud Watson for the album. When he opens his mouth and sings, you feel like you’re hearing what’s actually inside the man coming out, nothing left to show. Watson knows how to find the true spirit of these songs – and I have to admit that that high, old-timey reach I usually dislike is particularly helpful when wailing on a tune like “Mexican Cowboy.”

It’s all more than enough to compensate for any personal distaste I may have – a particularly impressive feat since, as the liner notes note, it’s “a true solo album in every sense. Watson is now center-stage, armed with an acoustic guitar, banjo and the occasional mouth harp.” It’s all very simple,  music a lone person could recreate on a lonely porch – pretty much what folk, at least when it’s solo, should be. Certainly what acoustic blues should be.

And to that effect, it’s worth noting that this is almost as much a blues album as it is a folk album. There’s a great rendition of “James Alley Blues” as well as “Mother Earth” and “Keep It Clean.” On Mother Earth, it’s Watson’s blues guitar that lifts the song as much as it is his voice, helping round out the album’s sound.

Nothing on the album is particularly innovative or new, but that’s okay. These are songs that need to be kept alive, and a lot more folks – especially young folks – listen to new albums than old ones. With this album, Watson is carrying on the proud tradition of old folk classics. In that particular regard, it reminds me a little of Pete Seeger’s “American Favorite Ballads” series, and I look forward to volume two. We certainly can’t let “Midnight Special” or “Stewball” die, and I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean.” Watson also does one of my favorite versions of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails.”

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5, and it’s more a 4 than it is a 3. It’s too sparse for heavy rotation, with big exceptions for the wonderful “Rock Salt and Nails” and “Keep It Clean” – and like I say, I look forward to volume 2.