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Remember country music with a capital C? You know, the way Waylon might have done it? Or Bill Monroe? The work of those icons is alive in the music of Kentucky native Sturgill Simpson, whose debut album, High Top Mountain, appeared earlier in 2013.
“That was my goal with that album, to make a country record,” acknowledges Sturgill. “I wanted to make something very traditional, unapologetic, but not like a niche retro thing.”
On the contrary, High Top Mountain presents an uncompromising modern vision of honky-tonk, and songs like “Railroad of Sin” and “You Can Have the Crown” depict the struggles of hungry musicians as well as working-class folks in his native Appalachia. Sturgill recorded the collection with Nashville session pros like pianist “Pig” Robbins.
Before Nashville, Sturgill drifted a bit, joining the Navy and spending time in Southeast Asia. He moved to Music City in 2006 but left for a job on the railroad in Utah, then decided to come back. “[It was] the fear of waking up at 40 and knowing I did anything else but what I loved,” he explains of his return. “I just wanted to do what I felt I was best at, and at least I know that I tried. My wife, it was really more her doing than mine.”
This time Sturgill found Nashville more receptive to what he was doing and earned a reputation for rowdy live shows that display his proficiency at everything from turbocharged twangers to heartbreaking ballads. “[A] lot of my heroes, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, they brought the sauce, man!” he observes. “You have to pound the hammer. It’s like this vibrating love and joy, and you literally can feel it.”
He got to feel the joy in a whole new way in August, when he made his Grand Ole Opry debut. “Getting to stand in that circle, most importantly, what it meant to certain members of my family,” he begins. “Their generation growing up, that was the big deal. My grandparents, they not only lived long enough, they got to be there and see it. I’ll always have that.”
And though he calls Nashville home, Sturgill hasn’t really had much involvement with the town’s record labels. But he would consider signing if they would let him do his thing. “If somebody came along, like, ‘Hey, man, we really like what you’re doing and we wanna support you, and you can have total control and do whatever you want,’” he says with a laugh, “I’m gonna be like, ‘Cool, high-five.’ But until that happens, why would I do that?”