Country music has given meaning to the life of Sturgill Simpson
To suggest that life has been something of a let-down for Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson would be an understatement of considerable proportions. With a general lack of direction and, to use his words, “I have never really been a very ambitious guy”, Sturgill Simpson found himself staggering from one job to the next, that saw stints in the US Navy and working long laborious hours on the railroad.
Despite a succession of (routine) jobs, there were bouts of creativity as Sturgill often reached for his trusty six-string guitar, after a gruelling shift working the railroad, to rustle up a few ditties of his own before embarking on another backbreaking day. Little did he know at the time, that these moments of after work creativity would lead to the position of where he now finds himself, and that is one that is garnering rave reviews across the board for his off-the-cuff live performances – “I never use a set list” – and quite stupendous debut album ‘High Top Mountain’ that is drenched in a traditional country sound rather than the saccharine replacement so often heard these days posing itself as country music.
With such talent reflected by ‘High Top Mountain’, the question remains of why have we not heard the name Sturgill Simpson before, especially considering his in-depth knowledge and genuine respect for country music of the past?
“A lot of it may have been down to confidence and issues to do with self-esteem,” Sturgill Simpson explains after some initial thought. “Honestly though, if it wasn’t for my wife’s encouragement a few years back to go and do this, I doubt I’d even be talking to you right now.”
So it’s your wife we should really be thanking for your impressive debut album?
“Yeah, I can’t take credit for it,” acknowledges Sturgill earnestly. “None of it would’ve happened, not without her, and that’s the truth.”
As Mrs Simpson emerges as the light of inspiration that helped navigate her partner out of the quagmire of uninspiring career choices pre-‘High Top Mountain’ and being the likely source of various pep talks to iron out any issues regarding self-esteem when it came to Sturgill Simpson’s abilities as a songwriter, further delay in the public announcement of Sturgill Simpson’s song writing capabilities was also a result of his own admission that music was seen as a recreation rather than a means to earn an income.
“I wasn’t really pursuing it [music], despite always having written songs, because I was working odd jobs and the music was more of a hobby. Where I grew up, music is a very common thing where everybody plays, but it is something that you do after work. So it was never something that I thought I could do for a living when I grew up. I wasn’t serious about music [career] until about three years ago when I moved to Nashville, as I had spent all my twenties up until about thirty-three doing just about everything else because I hadn’t really found the window that made me happy. So I decided to give this a go before I woke up one day and realised that I’d never tried to do something that I actually really enjoyed. Nashville is a bit of a shark tank though [competitive], as there is a bit of hustle and it took about a year to get to know the lay of the land and figure out where I fit in, which was nowhere [laughing]! However, I decided to try this as it might be the only record that I make and therefore I wanted it to be something I’m exceptionally proud of many years from now, no matter what happens, and that has led me to where I am now.”
Was it a frustrating set of experiences when you were working in a variety of jobs before committing yourself full-time to music?
“Those periods in my life when I was working in various different jobs was not so much frustrating, but aimless would be a more appropriate way of describing it,” considers Sturgill. “Without going into too much detail, there have been a number of years where I have put music down altogether and I’d go off drifting here and there. I can definitely say, however, that the most empty and pointless moments in my life were the times when I wasn’t playing music. So it was a fog really, as my twenties evaporated somehow,” he finishes laughing.
Having been surrounded by family members in Kentucky obsessed with traditional bluegrass and country, music in the life of Sturgill Simpson has been a constant that has filled his airspace from a young age and provided a wealth of education from Merle Haggard to Marty Robbins in the process. However, there was one family member in particular who really helped to develop Sturgill Simpson’s taste for country music and that was his grandfather: “He was the one who shaped my formative years and understanding of country music,” explains Sturgill enthusiastically recalling memories of his grandfather. “We used to watch TV together and Hee Haw [American TV variety show], and he’d tell me who was faking it and who was doing it wrong and who was really good. So he was a big influence and he bought me my first guitar.”
This early induction from his grandfather to the musical greats and obscurities of bluegrass and country music has not been forgotten by Sturgill Simpson who, in honour of this great man in his life, paid tribute to his grandfather’s memory with the song ‘Hero’ from Sturgill’s debut album ‘High Top Mountain’.
“That song is about my paternal grandfather who pretty much came from nothing and grew up in a coal camp in Eastern Kentucky and made a very good life for himself on his own sweat. By doing this, he provided for my grandmother and mother so that she could provide for me. He was a very simple man with a lot of character and if I had to think of one person that I’ve known in my life that I always really looked up to in every regard, then he’d be the one as he never let me down.”
Considering the time it has taken Sturgill Simpson to arrive on the scene and manoeuvre himself into the position he now finds himself, the actual recording process for ‘High Top Mountain’ was completed in a matter of days, one week to be precise, and recorded in Nashville “in a little tucked away spot, and nothing fancy as Music Row or anything like that” at the home studio of a close friend, Dave Cobb, who produced the album. By deciding to record ‘High Top Mountain’ in less pretentious surroundings no doubt added to the intimacy and sincerity of the songs on offer (‘Water In A Well’ is one such example), but also provided the songs with that ‘traditional’ sounding edge that harks back to a period in country music that is now often a thing of the past.
The authentic sound heard throughout ‘High Top Mountain’ was also a result of an inspired decision by Sturgill Simpson to enlist Country Hall of Fame pianist Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and steel guitarist Robby Turner. Such a choice to enrol the help of these country music legends certainly did not deter Sturgill Simpson in terms of his own song writing abilities, more the opposite in fact as it spurred him on, as well as providing invaluable experience, to the point that album number two is finished and raring to go.
“It’s already finished and probably coming out in a few months in Europe and the States,” comes the surprising revelation. “The first record was, as one of my heroes [Willie Nelson] put it, ‘I just cleared my throat’. What I mean here is that the problem with starting a music career at the age of thirty-five is that I’m sitting on about ten albums worth of material, but the problem with that now is that I’m in such a creative mode writing all the time, I just keep writing more and the stuff I’m sitting on I don’t really have the desire to go back and record. So the creative process tends to move a little faster than the mechanics of the industry. Therefore, my goal right now is just to do something I can feel good about. The next record will probably lose a few people, even though I’m not running from traditional country by any means, but I just made that record [‘High Top Mountain’] and I really didn’t see the point of turning around a year later and doing it again.”
But if it’s not broken in terms of ‘High Top Mountain’ why fix it?
“That’s the problem though, as it’s really broken now!” laughs Sturgill. “I don’t know, but there’s a bit of a destructionist in me where the solution to that is to go ahead and really destroy it and build it again, as opposed to living in the past and producing something that’s already been done.”
Without getting into any details, therefore, as we are here to talk about your current album, can we expect a major change in sound compared to your debut album?
“Oh, yeah! It will be far, far away,” comments Sturgill before continuing, “galaxies far, far away.”
Having already progressed to stage two of the career ladder when it comes to recorded output, despite the irritation of having to bide your time and wait for an official release date, ‘High Top Mountain’, for its creator Sturgill Simpson, must seem like a distant memory regardless of the promotion process he is currently undergoing. Therefore, being creatively one step ahead, do you have any regrets regarding ‘High Top Mountain’?
“I try not to think like that, as there’s no point in second-guessing, especially with music,” replies Sturgill without any hesitation. “You can spend nine months slaving away trying to capture perfection, but I know I’m a live performer and at my best in front of a crowd. I haven’t listened to the record in almost a year because it’s done and I don’t want to go back and obsess on anything and beat myself up. I just spent a year on the road, so I know that I’m a better musician than I was when I recorded that record. So I try not to read the internet stuff and focus too much on things. For example, Vance Powell, sound engineer, who mixed the record and is very highly respected, said something that really resonated with me and that was, ‘The biggest problem with music today is that nobody can make a decision, as usually what comes out the first time is what you meant the most and usually the right decision’ and that’s been something I’ve held on to going forward. If you think about all those classic records where fourteen songs were literally recorded in one day around one microphone as they just came in and knocked it out and there it was that moment in time. I think the self-indulgence of the 70s and the big studio budgets led to [pauses]…thank goodness as we have our ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and things like that because of it, but that kind of thing is not feasible anymore as I certainly don’t have $300,000 to spend nine months in the studio [laughing].”
The title of Sturgill Simpson’s first offering refers to a landmark in his hometown in Kentucky with the parting of clouds and soon-to-be sun-drenched imagery providing something of a cover-up as far as the contents are concerned due to such song titles as the darkly humorous ‘Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean’ suggesting otherwise.
“It’s not famous at all to anyone outside of the folks who live in the town where it is situated,” explains Sturgill regarding the landmark of his hometown. “It’s just a mountain up a road where my great grandparents lived and most of my grandmother’s family are buried up there as there is a little church with a graveyard beside it. As a kid, even before I was old enough to understand what was happening around me with funerals occurring and old Pentecostal figures wandering about, it was haunting and almost frightened me and that’s the stuff that sticks with you. So I figured that if I’m going to do this [music], as I may never get a chance again, I have got to do something the first time out that not only I can feel proud about, but also my family would feel proud about if they could hear it.”
Do you feel that where you are now in terms of your music career, that the jobs you held previously have provided a source of inspiration for your songs?
“Yeah, maybe indirectly,” responds Sturgill without any hesitation. “It’s certainly not hard to tap into a certain memory of what it feels like to be absolutely miserable. Even when it was like that, it was still humorous to me as I didn’t take it seriously enough to get depressed. My behaviour possibly reflected what a clinical psychologist may define as depression because I was just kinda floating, but I think you’ve gotta laugh at everything. So maybe there was a little back-end humour to it all that kinda comes out stronger.”
Such as ‘Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean’ for example?
“That song is a tongue-in-cheek reference regarding some conversations I had with various industry people the first year I spent in Nashville. Like I said, I have kinda floated through life, as I never took anything really seriously as I had a reckless and almost nihilistic view of life as a young man. So I approached Nashville in the same way when I got there. You have these people who say things whereby you’ve gotta do this and you’re going to need to do that and this is how this is done, [which left me thinking] so maybe that’s why everything sucks [in reference to that particular period]! So I [thought to myself] won’t be doing any of that, and probably won’t talk to you again anyway [laughing]. Other songs such as ‘Railroad Of Sin’, I figured that you can’t make a country record without a train song. I spent about four years working on the railroad before I moved to Nashville, which I felt gave me a bit of credibility on the street level to sing about some railroads. However, the song lyrically harks back to a time I spent during my early twenties in Japan. I screwed up good and proper as I went in the military for a while and that’s where I landed. Most of the memories from that time came from things that had absolutely nothing to do with the Navy. I honestly sort of forgot that I was in the Navy to be honest because I was kinda bopping all over Tokyo on the subways and really just partying my ass off.”
Life has certainly transformed for the better for Sturgill Simpson since those days when living and working was something of a blur and best forgotten about. The self-belief and end result with ‘High Top Mountain’ has led to many positives as Sturgill Simpson found to his pleasure during a recent tour of the UK.
“It has been going great,” says Sturgill Simpson enthusiastically regarding his UK tour. “It has always been a dream to come to Europe, especially the UK. I’m not just saying that, as I mean it, as I’ve always wanted to come over and just poke around and get lost. I have never had the money before to make it happen. So to be here, with a guitar in my hand performing to people has just been amazing. The crowds are unbelievably respectful and attentive. In fact, it really freaked me out during the first couple of shows as I thought I was doing badly because the audiences were so quiet and had me thinking that they hated it, but as soon as a song ended, the audiences responded positively. In the States, it gets old [stale] a lot of the time as you drive between 6 – 7 hours a day, and you show up at the venue and even if there are 300 people there who paid 10 or 15 bucks specifically to hear you play, they talk all the way through the show or they spend the whole show screaming at you and telling you what songs they want you to play. I never understood that because it’s like a contest to see who can be the most obnoxious, but with a microphone, of course, I’m going to win!”
With a new album scheduled for release later this summer that should see Sturgill Simpson making a return to British shores to carry on where he left off with more live dates, life for this country singer-songwriter finally appears to be heading along the right track especially when hearing of his enthusiasm for his newfound career.
“It’s weird, as I said [earlier], I’ve never been an ambitious guy and never really worked hard at anything, despite the railroad job being difficult with 70 – 80 hours a week, but it wasn’t rewarding. Last year didn’t feel like work at all and I know that I’ve never worked harder in all my life, and that leads to more hard work. For example, sitting at Belfast Airport this morning and thinking I haven’t seen anything for nine days apart from airports, train stations, hotel rooms and dressing rooms and yet I’ve never been happier in my life! I miss my wife, but I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
(Photos courtesy of Melissa Madison Fuller)
I had a reckless and almost nihilistic view of life as a young man."
FLW - From the Tapes
“The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was someone throwing a big bag of mushrooms up on the stage, and right in the middle of a show. I thought it was some grass [at first], so I left it there and smiled politely. I then leaned down a few songs later to pick it up and realised what was inside. I remember thinking that I hoped that there was no law enforcement in the venue because technically I was in possession! That was weird and you get the occasional panties [thrown] and people acting the fool, but I’m sure as soon as we hang up I’ll think of something I should have told you. To be honest, at this point in my life, nothing really surprises me anymore, as I kinda pray for those moments to be honest with you. It can’t get weird enough for me brother!”