Sturgill Simpson is the hard-to-classify, but always intriguing singer and songwriter who sounds like Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (take your choice, as both were great singers); writes about topics not often heard on contemporary country radio; has outspoken progressive politics sure to rub many country music fans the wrong way; and who has a gift for surprise…as you’ll find at the end of this post. (Bluegrass fans who can’t wait should just jump there first!)
A native of Kentucky, the son of a secretary and a Kentucky State Trooper, Simpson is the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in a strip mine or deep mine. Nonetheless, that blue collar, hard working sensibility comes through with every song he writes and every note he sings. He is a Navy veteran who speaks up in his songs and in interviews about the dangers of the military industrial complex. In a famous Facebook Live post outside the 2017 Country Music Association awards show, Simpson said,
“Nobody needs a machine gun. Coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns. Gay people should have the right to be happy and live their life any way they want to, and get married if they want to, without fearing getting drug down the road on a pickup truck. Black people are probably tired of getting shot in the streets, and getting enslaved by the industrial prison complex, and hegemony and racism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you very much.”
Simpson started making a name for himself with his 2014 debut album High Top Mountain which featured from-the-heart country songs — most written by Simpson — such as Railroad of Sin (as in, “On that railroad of sin I was a high balling train”). Here’s a great version with his “big band” at 2016’s Farm Aid:
Simpson’s second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (with a title that is a takeoff of the old Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music) was where others, besides the music critics and really loyal fans, began to take notice of this new talent. Long White Line — one of the great trucking songs — is from that album and Simpson performs it in this video in historic RCA Studio A in Nashville.
He took his work to the next level with 2016″s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, which won Best Country Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. It ended with the powerful Call to Arms, with its lyrics sure to inflame the Love-It-Or-Leave-It crowd.
I done Syria, Afganistan, Iraq and Iran
North Korea tell me where does it end
Well the bodies keep piling up with every day
How many more of em they gonna send
Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war
To control the heroin
Well son I hope you don’t grow up
Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man
Simpson tore down the house with his raucous version of Call to Arms on Saturday Night Live in 2017
Another shift in style came with 2019’s Sound & Fury, which was, by Simpson’s own description, a “sleazy, steamy, rock ‘n’ roll record.” He was out touring for this album (which was to include a performance at the Anthem in Washington on May 17-18) before the entire tour was cancelled and Simpson came down with COVID-19.
Which brings us to June 2020, where one can find a video of a live-streamed one-hour Simpson concert held on Friday, June 5th, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — the mother church of country music — with an all-star bluegrass band.
And I’m here to say it is wonderful!
Simpson recruited some of the best stars and session players of bluegrass in Nashville and has been recording an album with them over the past couple of weeks. As a “reward” for his fans hitting a $200,000 fundraising goal he’d set for three charities, they then performed a live concert, to a completely empty Ryman. But Simpson live-streamed the show and you can find the video on YouTube. Most of the songs are from Simpson’s back catalog, played — as he says — in the bluegrass style for which they were originally written. So we get Living the Dream (8:18 mark), Life of Sin (14:17), Long White Line (21:17), Sitting Here Without You (28:17), Railroad of Sin (50:00) plus more, including two great Stanley Brothers songs — Pretty Polly (45:38) and Sharecropper’s Son (54:16).
And the band is made up of some monster players. The incredibly talented Sierra Hull plays some silky smooth mandolin licks and handles a number of the backup vocals. Her bandmates are banjo player Scott Vestal (longtime member of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Sam Bush Band, and more); former bass player for the Del McCoury Band Mike Bub; guitarist Mark Howard; long-time Simpson drummer Miles Miller; and top session (and Nashville Bluegrass Band) fiddler Stuart Duncan. They rip through these tunes like the professionals they are, with smooth changes, adventuresome solos, and tasteful backup to Simpson’s unique vocals.
I loved the entire concert, so I encourage you to pull up a chair, crack open a cold one, and listen to some great bluegrass players perform a terrific set of songs that only Sturgill Simpson could have written. I’ll be “sitting here without you / And with you on my mind.”*
More to come…
*From Simpson’s “Here Without You”