The hype is real: Sturgill Simpson is breathing fresh air into country music.
Sturgill Simpson blew my mind during his first Austin City Limits taping on Wednesday night (April 2). There’s so much hype surrounding him and his music, but I assure you, he’s everything he’s cracked up to be. That’s a sentiment expressed by Austin City Limits, too. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or heard a buzz like the one that’s going on around this guy,” ACL’s emcee, Terry Lickona, told the audience before Simpson took the stage. Considering all the great artists who get up there to play, it’s worth taking note of his words.
But everyone there already knew that. The anticipation for Simpson to take the stage was palpable, and when he did, they gave him a roaring applause. Just as things went quiet for him to start, a guy standing next to me yelled out “play some music you f***ing hippie!” Simpson turned to him and with a direct and dead-pan stare that read “watch this” said “This one’s for that guy not saying good things,” launching into his rollicking song “Sitting Here Without You.”
Backed by an air-tight, four-piece band, Simpson played an hour-long set of pure and powerful music. You’ve probably heard Simpson’s sound described as traditional country, and it certainly has that quality, but it blends in so much more. Simpson infuses everything from four-on-the-floor country to soul to jam band – there’re even traces of glam-rock (more on that in a bit).
Most of the songs Simpson played were from his 2011 release, High Top Mountain, but the set also included a few off his breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, including “Turtles All the Way Down,” “Long White Line” and When In Rome’s “The Promise,” which was one of the evening’s best. Nearly every song has been adapted and expanded for the live show, but his outstanding cover of “The Promise” remains true to the recorded version.
Simpson and company pulled out a few other deep cuts during the show. At the end of the set, he dove into Carter Stanley’s bluegrass song “Medicine Springs.” For the encore, he sang Steve Fromholtz’ “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” made famous by Willie Nelson (It’s also the closing track on High Top Mountain). After that, he launched into a seamless medley of the Osborne Brother’s bluegrass song “Listening to the Rain” and T-Rex’s glam-rock song “The Motivator.” Simpson’s ability to transform songs from other genres into authentic country songs is just one aspect of what makes him so special as an artist.
Although, the main attraction is Simpson’s voice. Few singers in country music – or any other genre – possess his rare vocal quality. It’s soulful, it’s rich, it’s got the bite of an outlaw, the sensitivity of an artist, it’s powerful, and it hits you with an honesty and authenticity that’s impossible to ignore. Simpson uses his rich baritone for most of his songs, but when he sings “The Promise” you get to hear his full range up to a high register, and when you do, it’s like a smack in the face in the best kind of way.
It’s hard not to gush about his music. In today’s endless sea of cookie-cutter artists, over-recycled cliches and almost cartoon-like music videos, there’s Simpson, an incredibly talented singer who speaks with honesty and without any flash. He appeared on stage wearing jeans, a denim button-down shirt and sneakers. There’s no pretense. No massive guitar pedal boards, stage boxes to stand on and over-the-top theatrics. Just real music with real instruments. In today’s world, that is more than inspiring — it’s what’s missing.
But Simpson’s not without his imperfections. It seems like he’s still trying to get comfortable on stage, as he wears a very earnest and stern look throughout the set, but given what’s pouring out of him, that may just be the way he performs best. Also, he should have introduced the members of his wickedly-talented band. Lead guitarist Laur Joamets — who reminds me a lot of the late telecaster wizard Danny Gatton — was the other star of the show last night. The other band members, bassist Kevin Black, drummer Miles Miller and keyboardist Jefferson Crowe provided one hell of a rhythm section and laid a solid foundation for Simpson to let his star shine.
If you are new to Simpson’s music, I highly encourage you to check out his 2011 LP High Top Mountain and his critically-acclaimed 2014 release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. His ACL show will air on PBS sometime later this year. Simpson is also playing two more shows in Austin this week at Stubb’s, one tonight (April 2) and one on Sunday night (April 5)– but tickets are sold out. If you can get your hands on some, go. You’ll see a legend in the making.