country

Why Sturgill Simpson is Suddenly Famous, or, A Concert Review from the 9:30 Club last Friday

What a week for Sturgill Simpson – the GRAMMYs, returning to David Letterman, and “Metamodern” reaching 100,000 in sales. And lucky me, I got to see him right in the middle of it all.

(As of this writing, Simpson’s song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” is available for free MP3 download at Amazon.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

It was a pleasure to see Sturgill play at DC’s 9:30 Club Friday night. This was Simpson’s third DC-area show in the past 18 months and his second since hitting it big – and the 1200-capacity venue was beyond sold out. Tickets were $20 face value but climbed as high as $150 on StubHub. Very few shows are worth that much, but Simpson certainly delivered a helluva evening.

The 9:30 Club’s audience skews younger, especially since it’s almost entirely standing-room only. The crowd was a mixture of country natives living in the city, like the friends I was with, and DC hipsters. But no matter who’s in the audience, it is – just 17 months after watching Sturgill and the band play a free show in a BBQ basement to 100 DC residents – a real delight to see 1200 folks all sing along not just to songs from the new hit album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” like “Long White Line” but also older “High Top Mountain” tunes like “You Can Have the Crown” and “Old King Coal.”

The band seems a bit shell-shocked by their rapid rise, which Sturgill acknowledged when they came out for an encore – I’m paraphrasing here, but, “It was just three, four months ago we were still playing bars where backstage was the table next to the stage, so we’re still getting used to this encore thing.” A genuine tone, but said with a smile. I chatted with one of the band members afterwards and he laughed about the ascent, acknowledging that it was strange and a whirlwind – but they do seem to be taking it in stride, having a ball, and producing solid music. The instrumental jams and solos were longer than on the albums, as you’d expect, and they were great. Laur Joamets, Sturgill’s Estonian guitarist, absolutely blew the crowd away. And the loudest applause of the night came during “Life of Sin” each time Sturgill sang “The boys and me still working on the sound.” Sturgill said they were all bouncing back from a cold, but after warming up on the first tune, you could never tell. Solid show. (There were only one or two new songs, and their sound wasn’t particularly different, so no preview of the next album yet.)

Sturgill Simpson at DC's 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

Sturgill Simpson at DC’s 9:30 Club, 01-13-15.

I’ll mention two tiny negative things. I don’t mean them as criticism but I’d like this blog to feel like something more than constant free advertising for Sturgill – seems like half my posts are little more than me gushing about his music. First, it was an energetic show for sure, though some slower songs like “The Promise” were definitely included – but I would have loved to also here “Hero” and “Panbowl,” two of my favorites. But you gotta play to the crowd. Second, I think the sound levels might have been a little off. If I hadn’t already known the words it would have been tough to understand some of them. Then again, that’s bizarrely just how some people like their shows.

The opener, Anderson East, played a short set and I was held up at the venue’s bar, so unfortunately I missed him, but his first LP comes out later this year – let’s give him his due here:

You’d Never Cry Again – An Album and Concert Review: John Fullbright

It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.

John Fullbright at DC's Hill Country, 06/16/14

John Fullbright at DC’s Hill Country, 06-16-14

Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.

Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)

My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.

There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again

I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.

4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2014’s “Songs.” All I can really say is, buy this album, and if Fullbright comes to your town, you should go see him.

Unwrapping my dreams

I had two dreams about music last night.

In one, I dreamed that George Strait had an album called “Personal,” similar to Johnny Cash’s posthumous “Personal File” – different versions of his famous hits, covers of favorite songs, traditional gospel and folk classics, etc. One of the tracks I dreamed was on “Personal” was a stripped-down, slower version of his #1 hit, “Wrapped.” When I saw Wrapped’s songwriter, Bruce Robison, in concert earlier this year, he explained that the song was supposed to be a sad one – he’d written it at a point when he and his then-ex-gf now-wife were broken up and it was tearing him apart. But Strait made it sound like a happy upbeat song about just being in love. Robison said he likes the happy version more, but when I stop and read the lyrics thinking of it in the context of an ex rather than a current love, it makes a lot of sense as a sad song too, yearning for that one love you can’t escape: “It feels like ages since you laid down in my arms // I see no good reason but still I’m tangled in your charms // My God, you’re smilin’, you catch my eye // My heart is pounding deep inside.”

It’d be very interesting to hear Strait sing it that way.

My other dream was less country/roots, but still about music. I was sitting on the floor in front of a piano with eight pedals, kind of drunk, and discovered that I could play simple tunes with just the pedals. That was weird.

George Strait doesn’t need autotune

Earlier this week, I wrote a review of the new George Strait album, which was completely ruined by overuse of autotune (not as a T-Pain-style instrument, but turned up so high the voices didn’t sound human anymore). When I mentioned this, a friend wondered if maybe Strait is losing a step and needed the help to bolster his voice. No.

I’m sure this was justified in a loud, crowded arena to help the voices carry, but it was a terrible decision for a recording – and in response to my friend’s question, completely unnecessary. Check out this video I found from earlier this year of Strait picking up a guitar and singing a couple impromptu bars at a charity auction with no sound equipment – the voice is perfect!

http://launch.newsinc.com/?type=VideoPlayer/Single&widgetId=1&trackingGroup=69016&siteSection=dallasnews&videoId=25691437

Basically, shame on you, MCA.

No, just, no (Or, WHY GOD WHY?!?!?!): An Album Review – George Strait’s Live Final Concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away”

I have never been as disappointed in an album as I am the live recording of George Strait’s final tour concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Not because it’s a bad album, but because it should have been so much more. George Strait is the greatest recording artist I have ever heard, BAR F*ING NONE. The concert was amazing and both he and his fans deserve so much better than this travesty. I can’t believe I’m writing a bad album review for GEORGE FRIGGING STRAIT.

One word: G*D DAMNED AUTOTUNE. Okay, that’s two words. But listen, I’m in the process of becoming an ordained minister. I am not taking the Lord’s name in vain here – I’m simply literally asking the divine to DAMN THE MONSTROSITY THAT IS OVERUSED AUTOTUNE AND THE SIN THAT IS CALLING IT MUSIC. ENOUGH ALREADY.

Don’t get me wrong. From the clips I’ve watched, George Strait’s farewell concert was exactly what it needed to be, and we all know the legendary career. There is none greater in the history of country music and if you think Hank or Cash can beat it then just shut up because I’m a Texan and what I’m doing right now is called hero worship. I wish to high heaven I could have been in Dallas in June. But this God-awful album is chalk-full of autotune, and nothing else can shine through. You can hear it on most tracks, but especially on George’s voice on “The Cowboy Rides Away” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” as well as Alan Jackson’s on “Murder On Music Row.” It even dominates the gorram fiddle on “Fool Hearted Memory.”

I can see how autotune would help the voices carry across a crowded arena of 104,000 screaming fans and I wish I’d been one of them – but recorded?

No, just, no.

There’s a reason Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line did not perform at the King’s last show. At least Jason Aldean pretended to be the old Jason, not the new Jason. This was a farewell salute to REAL country music. So what the hell was autotune doing so prominently on the album, even if it was necessary at the show? You can say it’s fine music, and you might not be wrong, but that don’t make it country.

This is not George Strait’s first foray into autotone. There were those couple lines in 2001’s “Stars on the Water“. But, that was one track on one album – I can’t blame anyone for experimentation. A mark of a true professional is trying, failing, recognizing it as failing, and moving on. And that’s what George Strait did, for 13 years – so I can only blame MCA for this bullshit.

King George’s next studio album – as he’s only retired from touring, not recording, and is already back at work in the studio – can’t come soon enough to wipe this bloodstain from our ears. In the meantime, just stick with 2003’s “For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome“.

Two whiskey bottles out of five. The songs and singers are of course four or five bottles because it’s GEORGE STRAIT, but frick this should have been done better. This was clearly a fast turnaround by major-label execs who saw big dollar signs and wanted to make a quick buck – it has nothing to do with respecting fans paying homage to the best musical career in four decades. Money over music, everything Strait’s (admittedly poorly acted) movie strained against. No, just, no.

Ah, hell. At least it included the Martina McBride duet on the old Cash favorite, “Jackson.” That was a lot of fun when I saw the show in Philadelphia, so, that’s something.

An album that truly deserves the 2,926-word review: Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

(If you must, you can skip to my actual rating and summary at the end of this post, but whatever you do, buy this album – buy it now. And remember, it’s independently produced, so you’re not giving your money to a rich fat label.)

Yesterday, two weeks after his second solo, independent album debuted at #11 on the Billboard country charts, a Rolling Stone Country headline asked, “Is Sturgill Simpson Country Music’s Savior?

I wouldn’t use the word savior. Country radio could use a savior, but there’s lots good in country music that doesn’t need saving. That said, I did write last week that what country needs is not a new George Strait but a new Willie Nelson, and that maybe Sturgill would fill that role. That is, someone who can unite the many roots subgenres, create a movement, and eventually push it into the mainstream.

Trigger over at Saving Country Music, who does call for a “savior,” throws some cool water on all that for now. He loves Simpson – his 2013 co-artist of the year – as much as I do, but cautions against the danger of high expectations:

In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created… Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana. But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry… Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry.

L-rR Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.

L-R Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.

Fair enough. All that said, in every interview Sturgill gives, he seems to be filled with humility and focused more on his own identity, mission, and family than on professional success. “I’m not pursuing a mainstream career,” he told Billboard, “so I feel that I have the freedom to make the kind of records I want to. That’s a good feeling.” To CMT: “I could go back to the railroad. I liked that job.” And to NPR, “To be cliché and incredibly trite about it, I wanna make art… There was a big part of me that wondered maybe if this would be the end of my career. But you can’t worry about those things… A commercial path isn’t something I’m at all interested in pursuing.” And pretty definitively to Rolling Stone:

A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there. Because, fortunately, I’ve never pursued that side of the industry, which means I never had the opportunity to be screwed over or have any of these horror stories that you hear about. So for me to sit and talk about that stuff would be insulting to people who have, and extremely naïve… I don’t know where I fit in, but I do know that when I figure it out, it ain’t going to be because somebody else did it for me.

Ok, ok. Let’s give the man some respect, and turn to the music itself.

An Album Review: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

This is not one of the greatest country albums of ALL time, but it is one of the greatest country albums in a long time.

Sturgill’s previous album, HighMetamodern Sounds in Country Music Top Mountain, had an outlaw sound and a big focus on heartache and life’s struggles. Metamodern is no repeat. It generally keeps a similar sound despite a new band, but the lyrical heartache is mostly replaced with… well, with just about everything else, from black coffee to Buddha and reptile aliens, all of it driving at a bigger point about using love and compassion to get through life.

Sturgill says the album’s biggest influences were 80% his past experiences but also “The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and an essay that Emerson wrote called Nature… and then another book by Dr. Rick Strassman called The Spirit Molecule.” Or as he told NPR, it’s his “hobbyist interests… [in] the disguise of a traditional modern country record.” The liner notes also thank Stephen Hawking, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Sagan, and I think that last one’s especially cool because my birthday gift to myself this year was Sagan’s original “Cosmos” on DVD.

And yet, it stays country the whole time, both in its sound – traditional country – and its message, one of love and finding your way in the world. Astrophysics aside, Sturgill, who’s expecting his first child, says the album’s main point is really just the saving power of love for one another – and it shows. “Anytime I ever have met someone that was very angry or full of negativity, nine times out of ten if you really take a good look at that person’s life, there’s probably not a whole lot of love going on there.” Damn straight.

Before going track by track, I will say this: With Metamodern, Sturgill Simpson manages to simultaneously experiment AND keep sight of his roots. Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, and the stations that play them should take notes. Bro-country, EDM, and pop stars like Church defend their music by saying stuff like, “If we’re making the same music as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, why not just listen to that? They didn’t do the music before them, they completely changed.” Well, no, the outlaws didn’t COMPLETELY change – they were experimental, yes, but they kept to their roots. The whole point was to remind Nashville of steel guitars, fiddles, and personal stories, and push back against the era’s poppy homogenization. The problem with the music Church and his crowd are creating is that they “experiment” by merging genres, completely losing sight of their roots.

Sturgill shows them all how country experimentation is done. Let’s take it track by track.

1. Turtles All The Way Down

Metamodern’s opening track has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. How many other country songs can you think of that are named for Hindu theology or a Stephen Hawking quote? “Turtles All the Way Down” has the most interesting blend of metaphysical, cosmic, and psychadelic lyrics you may ever hear in country music, with the bottom line that for all the fancy religious theories out there, simple love is the most powerful. The first words on the album are “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire,” and soon after comes the now-famous line “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane // where reptile alien made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”

But really, this song isn’t about cosmology, and it’s not about space aliens, either. That line is just a spacey way of talking about relief, about having our pain taken away. And what is that takes it away? “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT, they all changed the way I see // But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

I actually don’t appreciate the swipes Sturgill takes at faith. Yes, belief and religion have caused a lot of pain an destruction, there’s no doubt about that. But let’s not mix up Christ for the Christians – faith can also be the source of the very love Sturgill sings about and encourages us to seek. Like retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, known to most for being the gay bishop but he’s much more than that, says, “Show me the God you don’t believe in – I probably don’t believe in him either.” In fact, when no other person is around to love us, God’s love is still there. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because the underlying message of love is still spot-on.

2. Life of Sin, 3. Living the Dream

Track two, “Life of Sin,” pats us on the back for getting through Turtles. It’s much more what you’d expect from a stereotypical old country album, singing about how his songs come from a heartbreak and drinking himself silly. Next up is “Living the Dream,” the album’s first single. This one’s a bit more convuluted in its metaphysical meaning. I could pontificate but it would sound more like disagreement then reflection if I put it in writing – which is to say, I did put it in writing, but cut it in the editing. Better to just quote the NPR interview again: “I’m learning the less I talk about it, the more opportunity I leave for people to form their own interpretation. ”

4. Voices, 5. Long White Line

“Voices” might have the most poetic lyrics on the whole album. Sturgill writes about the voices pressing in on him, how they’re singing about society’s depression – “the rivers are crying but the oceans cannot speak.” He wishes they’d go away but they never will, and it’s not a sign of the end times because they’ve always been there. Yeah, this sounds like something an Appalachian man would know and should write. Next is “Long White Line,” which like Life of Sin after Turtles, pulls it back to traditional country themes, allowing us to towel off after such a deep dive – his girl’s gone, so he’s hitting the open road. The guitar’s rhythm is something right out of a Cash or Willie album, too.

6. The Promise

The album’s back half then begins with a cover of  When In Rome’s “The Promise” from 1988, which starts as the slowest love song of either of Sturgill’s albums, but opens up to a little bit of very effective and appropriate Waylon-esque wailing toward the end. The lyrics, some of the very few that aren’t original, are a beautiful promise to always be there, to be supportive. I don’t care for new wave music but in Sturgill’s style, I see that I love this song. I will offer a slight negative note about the instrumentation though – the mellotron is just a little too sappy. The lyrics really hold their own on this one with the way Sturgill sings them, no need to try and make it more romantic.

7. A Little Light

On “A Little Light,” Sturgill’s vocals are more reminiscent of Randy Travis’s Gospel stint or even George Jones than of the usual Waylon comparisons. It has the feel of a a Gospel song, but the lyrics are a bit broader than just Christianity. Sturgill sings about walking the road to Heaven, but says all you need to get there isn’t a compass or a map but a little light inside you. It’s about love and light within, and I dig it.

8. Just Let Go

I love the first line of “Just Let Go”: “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego // It ain’t ever done me no good no how.” And this line, oh this line: “You have to let go so the soul can fall.” It’s true, like pastor and author Rob Bell says, if your hands are too full of the good, there’s no room left for the great, you gotta set it down. And the uplifting melody and high notes really fit the words. I might have toned down the slide guitar though – oddly enough, it reminded me a little too much of the Finding Forrester soundtrack, which I dig, but in a very different way. That music is more searching, whereas the overarching feeling here is almost like taking a divine bath in God’s refreshing and hydrating light, feeling the relief and love it brings.

9. It Ain’t All Flowers

Then we get to “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and this is where I go, “What the F***?” Lyrically, like so much else, it’s great. It’s about searching the corners of one’s own mind to figure stuff out. Sturgill alternates between howling and almost growling. It works well. But then they play the song backwards, and it switches from dark, psychedelic country — but still country — to something more urban, almost funk with a spooky edge.

I don’t like it, because it’s not me. And that’s completely okay, because this one isn’t supposed to be me. It’s supposed to be Sturgill. If you want to respect a song about plumbing the depths of one’s own mind, then you have to let the writer go wherever that takes him or you’re a hypocrite. And like Sturgill told NPR, this one “stands to represent my own introspective journey I’ve taken over the last few years.” I also like part of his goal here – the means were cool regardless of the ends: “Dave [Cobb, producer and engineer] had the idea: Instead of bringing in synthesizers, why don’t we just attempt to try to recreate some of [popular modern electronica] sounds using analog equipment? Which sounded amazingly fun and challenging, so we were all for it.”

10. Panbowl

We close with the hidden “bonus” tenth track, “Panbowl.” For the third time, Sturgill tells us, “Wow, alright, took you down a pretty weird path there, didn’t I? Here, let’s have a rest together.” It’s acoustic country influenced by his previous bluegrass career. It’s also a more relaxing song, opening with happy guitar chords. The subject is nostalgia for his Kentucky childhood, and love for his family. That kind of specific love and the stories that back it up are a natural conclusion to the rest of the album’s lyrics, and the acoustic sound helps balance things out. It really is the perfect end to the album.

No matter how weird this album gets, and even without a fiddle, it’s still a country album. This is an album with slide guitars about life, and what else is true country music ever about, really? Whether it’s complex, twisted, and psychological or just simple and emotional, laying your soul bare is still laying your soul bare. Pain is pain and the need for love is the same, no matter how it was we came to see it.

And this is why I say that Sturgill might, just might, be our next Willie Nelson. Metamodern’s foundational sound is what traditional and outlaw country fans look for. It’s experimental and electric enough that Americana and alt-country fans can dig it. Throw in just a few more lighter notes or acoustic sound on even just one track, and you may not appeal to the Lumineers’ indie folk crowd but it won’t keep them away anymore, either. We’ll see what fans do with Sturgill’s stuff over the next few years, but he certainly has the right kind of appeal to be the Willie-esque uniter that roots music needs to punch back against hick-hop.

I’d worry that saying stuff like that puts too much pressure on Sturgill from fans, except for two reasons. First, his last album said, “Life ain’t fair and the world is mean.” Second, maybe he’s not our Willie Nelson. Maybe he’s our Jackie Robinson – like Branch Rickey saw in Robinson, you’re not necessarily the best at the game, but you’re the best at taking the pressure. Like Sturgill told Billboard, “If it’s all good and it’s smoke being blown up your ass, and you start investing faith in it all, that’s a good way for you to set yourself up for a long hard fall. We’re just trying to keep moving forward.”

The Takeaway

4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5. I actually originally gave it five out of five for the first 8 hours this post was up, and should probably just leave it there, but something is holding me back. Objectively, this is a much better record than High Top Mountain, which I gave a 5. It’s absolutely a work of creative genius. And like I say, except for “It Ain’t All Flowers” (which I still respect), I love the sound. Sturgill hits the perfect spot of balancing experimentation with his roots. It’s also a big break from the subject material of his first album, showing great range and talent. Making this took a lot of bravery.

But personally, I prefer HTM, just out of personal taste, and feel like my ratings should reflect that. I also feel like something is dampening the sound. Trigger at Saving Country Music said it’s the recording hiss. Maybe. I think it also needs just a little more acoustic instrumentation, maybe some light fiddle, to open up the sound a bit – perhaps in place of the mellotron on The Promise. Not much, just a touch.

Finally, it’s exhausting. The tricks, the nuances, the metaphysics – it really makes you pause and think. You just can’t be neutral about this stuff. In fact, it reminds me a teeny bit of the debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Today the Fifth is seen as an innovative masterpiece, but at the time, there was so much new in it that Beethoven’s audience was just confused. I dig this album, and its message of love is spot-on, but it wipes me out – as any country exploration of the soul should.

So yeah, 4.5, maybe even all 5, whiskey bottles out of 5, but also with the hangover that that much whiskey brings.

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, like Sturgill’s previous record, was recorded in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb. Except for Cobb, though, the band is all new: Laur Joamets on guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Miles Miller on percussion & backing vocals, Mike Webb on keyboards & mellotron, and Cobb on classical guitar & percussion.

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.

‘Rolling Stone’ launches new country music website with greatest songs list

RS CountryWell now this is  interesting – Rolling Stone magazine launched a new venture today, “RS Country.” It’s a new Nashville office for the new rollingstonecountry.com, and the next print edition will be a special issue focused on country. According to editor Gus Wenner,

Now more than ever, music is all mixed up again. Listen to country radio today, and you’ll hear heavy-metal guitar solos, hip-hop rhythms and EDM flourishes alongside pedal steel and twang: Country now encompasses all of American pop, decked out in cowboy boots and filtered through Music Row. Listen to pop radio, in turn, and you might hear [Taylor] Swift, Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum or Florida Georgia Line.

Rolling Stone has always been about storytelling, as has country music – and we’re excited to have a new world of stories to tell. We will treat country the way we treat every other subject we cover: We will take it seriously, we will look beneath the surface, and we will always focus on what brought us here in the first place – the music.

The new website launches with a diverse set of articles covering all aspects of country – an interview with Keith Urban, reviews of the new albums from Sturgill Simpson and Nikki Lane (look for mine later this month or even week), and in true Rolling Stone fashion, their 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time and a 10 New Artists You Need to Know: Summer 2014 that’s thankfully much heavier on the Americana than the hick-hop.

Both lists bode well for RS’s expanded country coverage. Unfortunately, the only way to read them is as a slideshow, and that’s just stupid. But I did the clicking for you, and here are their top 10 songs:

  • 10. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, ‘Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys’ (1978)
  • 9. Dolly Parton, ‘Jolene’ (1973)
  • 8. Merle Haggard, ‘Mama Tried’ (1968)
  • 7. Ray Charles, ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (1962)
  • 6. Tammy Wynette, ‘Stand By Your Man’ (1968)
  • 5. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Standing on the Corner (Blue Yodel #9)’ (1930)
  • 4. George Jones, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (1980)
  • 3. Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949)
  • 2. Patsy Cline, ‘Crazy’ (1961)
  • 1. Johnny Cash, ‘I Walk the Line’ (1956)

Looking through the full 100, the ’90s are a little underrepresented – no “Check Yes or No” or “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”??? – but thank Heavens there’s absolutely no Luke Bryan in sight. In fact, after Taylor Swift’s “Mean” from 2010 clocks in at #24 (the hell?), there’s absolutely nothing from after 1987. I also love that Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” from just last year is #39.

What do you think of Rolling Stone‘s list? Don’t see your favorite? Disagree that “All My Exes Live In Texas” is George Strait’s best? Upset he didn’t have anything higher than #18? Outraged “Goodbye Earl” beat “Golden Ring” or “Pancho and Lefty”? Let’s discuss in the comments below!