On the way home a few days ago, I turned on Sirius/SM Outlaw Country (channel 60) and these lyrics blared out:
Now Lord, if you can hear me, won’t you throw a damn dog a bone
‘Cause if the devil shows up with a better deal, this old soul’s goin’ down
Oh, I sing ‘em real pretty, sing ‘em real sad
And all the people in the crowd say ‘he aint half bad’
Well, they call me king turd up here on shit mountain
If you want it, you can have the crown
It’s not often I find myself wide-eyed and slack-jawed, but that caught me with my britches down. My antennas went fully erect. I only heard the tail end of the song (no pun intended), so I didn’t catch the artist’s name. We were driving down a six-lane highway during rush hour, so glancing down at the radio could very well have resulted in errant eyeballs and fenders in treetops. Eyes on the road, people, just not literally.
So I says to the wife I says, “Turn the radio off. It’s all downhill from here. Unless they have a recording of Jesus reading Nietzsche, nothing they play from now on will even come close. You can’t follow that kind of poetic beauty.”
I heard a mere fragment of the song, yet it was everything country music is supposed to be: simple, realistic, and to-the-point. It was scuffed up, unruly, and had hair on it. It worked in a factory and couldn’t afford college. But most of all, it was memorable. I could hum it when it was over.
So I hummed it all the way home, pedal to the floor Maxell-style. (Quick test: hum Luke Bryan’s latest hit. I DON’T HEAR YOU.) We pulled into our driveway like Eleanor in Gone In 60 Seconds. Thank God there weren’t any widows and orphans out for a stroll or I’d have sent them all to Jesus. I’m not averse to hurting someone in the pursuit of good country music. I was on a mission: Who sang that song? WHO WAS THAT?
The next few feverish minutes went a little something like this:
iPhone 4S > 4G > Wi-Fi > Safari > Google > Search king turd up here on shit mountain > Results: You Can Have The Crown/Sturgill Simpson > iTunes > Search > Sturgill Simpson > Albums > High Top Mountain > $9.99 > Purchase > Downloading > Finished > Backup to iCloud > Aux > Siri > Play Sturgill Simpson.
I had used no less than SEVEN earth-shattering technological innovations in less than five minutes. All for a song that sounds like it was written in 1975. Hello irony, my old friend. A worldwide network of servers, clients, protocols, routers, satellites, towers, and a bunch of other shit I know nothing about waves its magic wand and—voila!!—good ol’ country music like grandpa used to make. A 3D printer spits out a fiddle. Technology delivers simplicity.
We live in ironic times.
From the front seat of a Honda Fit, I looked over and I saw the Promised Land. I have been to the Mountaintop. I have seen the future of country music and its name is Sturgill Simpson. Verily verily I say unto you, High Top Mountain is high art. It is most decidedly not the ear vomit that pours out of today’s terrestrial “country” radio. It’s in vivid contrast to the dense fog of dog peter gnats currently swarming Nashville. In fact, here’s “country” radio’s probable response to High Top Mountain:
1. It has a shitload of pedal steel on it. Too much meat on the bone. Strike one.
2. It’s all grit and heart. Can’t tailgate to it. Won’t sell flags and tampons. Strike two.
3. Simpson uses a four-letter word when the situation calls for it. Mentions weed, whiskey, and welfare. NOT IN OUR AIRBRUSHED AMERICA. Strike three. YOU’RE OUT.
Of course, I suspect Simpson doesn’t care. After all, if you’re going to write songs at this level of honesty, you have to let the chips fall where they may. So don’t expect to hear “You Can Take The Crown” on today’s “country” radio. Not without divine intervention or an Ernest Tubb-style trip to WSM. But make no mistake, Simpson has crafted a record that shames every flaccid note of today’s “country music”. High Top Mountain is Ezekiel speaking to the valley of dry bones.
And what hath Simpson wrought?
“Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean” and “The Storm” are both dead ringers for Waylon Jennings circa 1977. (Yes, at times Simpson channels Waylon Jennings. So what? Bob Dylan sounded like Woody Guthrie. Bruce Springsteen sounded like Bob Dylan. What’s your point? Focus, people.)
“Poor Rambler” feels like an old Appalachian folk song, but with some scalded dog piano solos. It sounds like Charlie Rich plunking out notes with cloven hooves. When they finished recording it, the band probably needed fire extinguishers and chiropractors. Sweet Jesus, these boys can pick.
“Railroad Of Sin” is a white-knuckle bluegrass heart attack, one railroad tie away from riding off the rails on a crazy train.
Also included is a cover of Steven Fromholz’s “I’d Have To Be Crazy” that—no hyperbole—rivals the Willie Nelson hit version. Simpson comes THIS CLOSE to matching the Zen Methodist himself.
But High Top Mountain’s money shot is “Hero”, a touching tribute to Simpson’s grandfather. It should take its rightful place in the Library Of Congress National Recording Registry:
‘Cause when it all comes down to zero
There’s nothing more this life can ever give
And I know I’ll never find another hero
Not another one like him
Decided to write a song for my hero
Considering he’s done so much for me
Seriously, I get choked up just typing that. It’s positively Biblical.
High Top Mountain, however, is not simply Country 101. It’s honky tonk, gospel, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, outlaw country, and demographics be damned. I even get a strong whiff of old-school R&B, back when it was about more than just melisma, riff, and bling. “Some Days” has a quasi-hip hop beat. “Water In A Well” is a piano ballad that would be right at home on Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection. Simpson paints each song with the appropriate brush. Life doesn’t fit in neat little boxes, anyway. I get the sense he’s lived these songs. That’s why there’s life in them.
High Top Mountain is a towering masterpiece. If you buy one record this year, make it this one.
You can purchase High Top Mountain at the usual suspects (amazon, iTunes). For more information: http://sturgillsimpson.com/
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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