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          This guy’s got a couple of gigs coming up at Celtic Connections this weekend and I wonder if that great festival has ever hosted anybody so purely country. High Top Mountain was released in the States last year and has earned Sturgill Simpson the breakthrough that he’s long craved. Aiming to make the “purest…hard country album anyone has made in 30 years” he succeeded in making something that sounds both bang up to date and also totally “classic country”.

           Recorded in Nashville with producer David Cobb, the recruitment of old hands Pig Robbins on piano and Robby Turner on steel guitar ensures that the old sound gets reproduced by guys who helped make it. Robby Turner played with Waylon Jennings for some years and I guess that’s the old country hero who first comes to mind listening to Sturgill Simpson – at least for this listener who only has a passing acquaintance with “pure” country music. However, the factors which normally limit my enthusiasm for what I call “Big Hat” music (sentimentality, pseudo-macho posturing, formulaic and pedestrian music, to name a few) are here blown away by a fresh approach, bucketloads of enthusiasm, some meaty drumming and a hugely committed performance from the man himself. Simpson describes himself as a bluegrass player at heart though there’s not much of that on display in this album. Rather, it’s electric and steel guitars, honky tonk piano and that excellent drumming giving us a tour of country sounds that we’ve known all our lives. There are the slow, gruff ballads like Water in a Well and full speed, get-up-an-bop numbers like Railroad of Sin. This latter clocks in at just 2.04, demonstrating an excellent appreciation of how less is more.

         Those two musical dimensions would be more than enough for most acts but Simpson and his producer have more strings to their bow than that. He writes well, this fellow, and enjoys wordplay and humour; sure, there’s doses of sentimentality and familiar territory like “my woman treated me bad and I’m going to get even” but he leavens it with wit and energy. The publicity talks about his music being “devoid of gloss and fakery” ….well, this is country music we’re talking about here and it wouldn’t be country music if it didn’t lift us out of our dusty rut and make life seem purer and brighter. One of the great things about this genre is that it always retains a strong connection to real life as it is lived and, certainly, it would be fair to say that Sturgill Simpson has reinforced that connection. He writes from his own life and there are several references to his long struggle for any sort of recognition in the country music world. That long apprenticeship will serve him in good stead now that success has finally come knocking on his door. After Glasgow, he’ll be hanging round in the UK for a while and I see he’s playing a few gigs with Laura Cantrell, which could be rather special. He’s a blast of fresh air, this fellow, and if he forms a bridge between Nashville music and mountain music, that could be very exciting indeed.


John Davy

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September 2018

The Devil Makes Three
70 pts.
Chains Are Broken
New West
Jimmy LaFave
65 pts.
Peace Town
Music Road Records
Malcolm Holcombe
48 pts.
Come Hell Or High Water
Gypsy Eyes Music
Cody Canada & the Departed
47 pts.
Blue Rose Records
Jeffrey Foucault
43 pts.
Blood Brothers
Blueblade Records
The War And Treaty
42 pts.
Healing Tide
Thirty Tigers
Martha Fields
40 pts.
Dancing Shadows
The Weight Band
35 pts.
World Gone Mad
Must Have Music
David Olney
32 pts.
This Side Or The Other
Black Hen Music
The Black Sorrows
32 pts.
Citizen John
Blue Rose Records
Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis
31 pts.
Wild Wild Wild
Bloodshot Records
Hadley McCall Thackston
28 pts.
Hadley McCall Thackston
Wolfe Island Records
Nathan Bell
28 pts.
Er Gwaetha Pawb a Phopeth
Angry Stick
Curse Of Lono
26 pts.
As I Fell
Submarine Cat Records
Ryan Martin
25 pts.
Gimme Some Light
High Moon
Stephen Simmons
25 pts.
Locke Creek Records
Jason McNiff
23 pts.
Joy And Independence
At The Helm Records
Jim Lauderdale
23 pts.
Time Flies
Yep Roc
Kevin Gordon
23 pts.
Tilt and Shine
Crowville Media
Eliza Gilkyson
21 pts.
Red House Records
Boz Scaggs
20 pts.
Out Of the Blues
Concord Records
20 pts.
Among The Ghosts
Thirty Tigers
Melissa Carper & Rebecca Patek
20 pts.
Brand New Old-Time Songs
The Jayhawks
17 pts.
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels
Lori McKenna
16 pts.
Cn Records

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