Wednesday night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the Country Music Association Awards by storm with a clean sweep for the independent and underground country movement with his album “Traveller.”
I’ve been meaning to review Traveller for months. I’ve never blogged as much as I’d like to and grad school makes it even tougher, but here it is, the long-overdue Hard Times No More review of Traveller:
3.75 whiskey bottles out of 5.
You’re asking, WTF? Empsall, did you drink the other 1.25 bottles?
Well, it is the best album I will ever give less than a 4. I give it 3.75 only because of this blog’s lens. If current country radio is the standard, then Traveller definitely gets a 6 out of 5 – let the whiskey overflow across the floor. If good music in general is the standard, 4.5 out of 5. It’s great stuff, but I’m looking for solid country and Americana music that stands up within the genre. On that particular front, this album is track by track. There’s nothing bad, but not really anything that really knocks me out, either. This is a good album, I like Chris Stapleton as a musician, but for this genre, while it’s really good, it’s also overhyped. I also think there’s a certain storytelling element lacking here that’s usually found on the best country albums. There’s a musical theme, but not quite the lyrical one I want.
Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled Stapleton swept the CMAs. A talented songwriter for pop-country artists who’s also immersed in the bluegrass and traditional country worlds yet is not a pure traditionalist is probably the only workable bridge between the underground and the mainstream, and as I wrote yesterday, Stapleton’s wins give country fans more hope than we’ve had in a decade.
But as for the album itself – for me, it’s a mix. Stapleton’s voice is a bit like Travis Tritt with a twist of Sam Cooke or maybe even Leon Bridges. But while those folks are great and I wish I could stretch a high note like that, it’s not what you expect. If you don’t mind that, if all you want is great music regardless of type, very cool, definitely put the album in your heavy rotation. I certainly enjoy it. I like this album – I’m just reviewing it as a country album. And Stapleton himself, who’s been in Southern rock and bluegrass bands, both genres that I love, has said he doesn’t want to stay in one box.
Producer Dave Cobb can do no wrong, and the album is well produced with a good vision. It’s a little slicker than Cobb’s work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings, etc., but a good vision nonetheless.
My two favorite songs are “Fire Away”, co-written with Danny Green which shows off Stapleton’s wide range and solid tenor voice while staying in a country style, and “Whiskey and You,” co-written with Lee Thomas Miller, and recorded previously by Tim McGraw and Jason Eady. Eady’s cover is one of my favorite songs. Great guitar on both.
“Parachute,” co-written with Jim Beavers, feels like a Bob Seger tune covered by Chris LeDoux. Southern rock, not country, but I dig it.
I really want to like “More of You.” It’s so close to being my favorite, but ultimately misses the top tier. I love the songwriting, the slow melody, the beautiful vocal duet with his wife Morgane, and the Willie Nelson style harmonica. What I don’t love, oddly enough, is the mandolin. Just lightly strumming away on the same couple chords the whole time, it gives the song a high pitch that makes it feel too light. It also feels bluegrass, and while I love bluegrass, that doesn’t seem what this song wants. It should’ve been an octave lower on an acoustic guitar, I think. But I will say this, it grows on me every time I hear it.
The only song I straight up don’t like is “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove song. I LOVE the song. I heard Jamey Johnson sing it live last month, and it was amazing. I sing it to my girlfriend. Hat’s off to George Jones. But this is a bizarre bluesy cover. Why cover a country classic like a blues song… on a country album? It’s talented, but it feels very out of place. And Stapleton can certainly sing smoothly enough to nail a “smooth as Tennessee whiskey” version.
“Traveller” is a good album. You should buy it. It’s the CD Travis Tritt wishes he had released in the 1990s – he could have done that great cover of “Was It 26”. In a broader sense, it’s certainly another Americana triumph for Dave Cobb. I think it’s immensely overhyped, but it is good, I will listen to it again, I would love to see Stapleton live, and I am so grateful for all that it has accomplished for true fans of true country music. Trigger said it best: “It certainly is something to be taken as a very good sign, even if you’re just ho hum on Stapleton.” Yup, that’s me, but I’ll echo this as loudly as I can: “It’s a win for music of more substance, regardless of who made it, and what style it is.”
Last night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the 2015 CMA Awards by storm, shoving bro-country and country (c)rap out of the way to win Male Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and with best-in-the-business producer Dave Cobb, Album of the Year for May’s “Traveller.”
Chris Stapleton straddles country and Southern rock, and previously, bluegrass. So he’s not strictly country – we’re not talking outlaw style like Sturgill Simpson or a traditionalist like Dwight Yoakam – but he can write and perform that way when he wants to, and he is damn good at what he does.
Despite the “New Artist” tag, you’ve heard his work if you listen to either mainstream radio country or bluegrass. From 2008-2010, he was the lead singer for that great bluegrass band, the SteelDrivers. As a songwriter, he has six #1 hits, and wrote or co-wrote four songs I really enjoy: “Your Man” for Josh Turner, “Love’s Gonna Make it Alright” for the king, George Strait, “Drink a Beer,” the only recent Luke Bryan performance I can deeply respect, and “Whiskey and You” for Tim McGraw, though I prefer Jason Eady’s version. You might have also heard “Never Wanted Nothing More” for Kenny Chesney, “Come Back Song” for Darius Rucker, and “Crash and Burn” from Thomas Rhett.
He’s also got an amazing beard that can almost compete with Jamey Johnson’s.
Does this mean the tide is turning? Not on its own, no, but it helps. Kacey Musgraves did well (not as well, but well) at the 2013 and 2014 award shows, but still hasn’t had mass radio play (though both albums were #1). That said, when you add these awards to Sturgill Simpson’s quick rise to the top; Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s iTunes album sales in July; attention for quality artists from major industry figures like Zac Brown, Justin Timberlake, and Blake Shelton; and the quick downfall of Sony exec Gary Overton after disparaging independent music, fans of Americana and actual country music have more momentum and more cause for hope than at any time in the past decade.
But remember: While Stapleton is authentic, he isn’t strictly country. As he told Rolling Stone, “I don’t like to put things in a box all the time. If I’m feeling like rock, we’ll do some of that, and if I’m feeling some other way, we might do some of that.” Look to him to make good music, but not to be a singular force that “saves” country radio or the industry.
I’ll have my review of “Traveller” in the next few days. Here’s one of last night’s duets between Stapleton and Justin Timberlake:
And here’s Jason Eady covering Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You”:
I saw the Secret Sisters — Laura and Lydia Rogers — live at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in early May, opening for Nickel Creek. I wasn’t previously familiar with them, but I loved them. Their tight-knit harmonies were great, Laura had a great stage presence between songs, and the song-writing was strong. Small wonder, since the women are originally from Muscle Shoal, AL, but their band was good, too. Everything was forceful yet light, and you could understand the lyrics — it was a great show in every regard.
My friend — a woman, for whatever the diversity of our perspectives on this is worth — and I both thoroughly enjoyed the performance of “Rattle My Bones,” so at the merch table after the concert, I asked for whichever album that was on. Turns out that was “Put Your Needle Down,” out just three weeks before.
I think I bought the wrong album. In an interview with Billboard, Lydia Rogers acknowledged that this album is different from their first one, and worried that they might lose people because the duo wrote most of the songs themselves this time. Actually, I think the songwriting is very strong, and I commend the two for it. The vocals are wonderful, too. The problem is that the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the executive producer for the first album, was the hands-on producer for this second album. I hate to say it, but it sounds like virtually every other recent T-Bone Burnett album. Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the vocals, repetitive guitar rhythms, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound.
I actually like Burnett’s sound. It’s perfect for new, broader audiences, so if you don’t know who he is, you might love this album. The problem is, while he’s still doing wonders for movie and TV soundtracks, when it comes to producing albums, it feels like he’s coasting. His is an approach that would elevate almost anyone on country radio but more or less homogenizes true Americana talent. If you’re going to homogenize, do it this way, absolutely – but why homogenize if you don’t have to?
Burnett was also the executive producer, but not the producer, for the Secret Sisters’ eponymous 2010 first album — and it felt like a Burnett album would feel if he let a Bakersfield sound dominate his own. I love it. More importantly, the hands-on producer for that earlier album was David Cobb, who was also behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” (the best album of 2013), both of Sturgill Simpson’s amazing projects (the second-best albums of both 2013 and of 2014 so far), and a lot of work for Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. Additionally, Country Hall of Fame pianist Pig Robbins and Waylon Jennings alum Robby Turner, both of whom joined Cobb on Sturgill’s debut album, played on the Sisters’ first album. Together, the three helped the Secret Sisters sound like a modernized, edgier, Patsy Cline if Patsy Cline were a soprano with a close-harmony backup. And while the sisters might claim they see that album as one of standards, their original “Tennessee Me” was absolutely great. Give that 2010 album even more confidence and turn its Bakersfield sound to alt-country, and that’s what I saw and loved last month in DC.
I wish 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down” gave me a similar feeling. But honestly, for a majority of the tracks, swap out their tight harmonies for a solo male voice and you’ve got actor Jeff Bridges’ eponymous, Burnett-produced 2011 album. Which I did like, just as I like this one — it’s just that neither are anything special. Again, the T Bone Burnett sound: Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the lead vocals, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound. Sometimes that really works, creating a great balance by swinging back and forth with a ’50s feel on “Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye” — my favorite song after the driving “Rattle My Bones” I bought it for. Unfortunately, it comes on strong even when it’s not warranted, too. Nowhere is this more true than the second track, “Luka,” especially on the outro.
And that’s all Burnett, not the Sisters themselves. They’re good singers and good songwriters. Great songwriters, really – Bob Dylan even allowed them to finish a song he’d started 30 years ago but never finished, “Dirty Lie.” And take the self-defense, strong-woman murder story of “Luka,” or these lyrics from “Bad Habit,” co-written with Brandi Carlisle: “I’ve got a bad habit, one that I’ve been trying to keep… I can’t break this bad habit, ’cause this habit’s breakin’ me.” So I like this new album. I really do. The songwriting is tight and diverse and the harmonies even tighter, with that Everly Brothers comparison everyone made in 2010 especially shining through again on “Lonely Island.” But it feels like it could be just so much more, especially after seeing them live.
Three whiskey bottles out of five for 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down,” and up it four if you dig both alt-country and the 1950s yet despite those tastes have somehow never heard or tired of T. Bone Burnett.
Four out of five whiskey bottles for 2010’s debut, “Secret Sisters.” I really like the mix of their modern vocals with traditional instrumentation on that one. I hear a lot of Bakersfield here and I absolutely love it.
And albums aside, if they’re performing near you, I certainly recommend going. Buy your ticket now and have a great night. Burnett might be too focused on his other projects, but the Secret Sisters themselves are a great duo.
(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.)
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-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, High 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.”
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.”
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.
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’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.