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"High Top Mountain"

Release date: 10 February 2014
Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain
12 February 2014, 13:30 Written by Stephen Jenkins

Most of the time it’s easy to see behind the craft of an artist’s mythology, especially when it comes to those genres so fervently image driven that their figureheads become caricatures of themselves. We all secretly know that Corey Taylor enjoys watching videos of cute kittens on YouTube, and that Morrissey is known to break a smile on occasion, and that Hannah Montana isn’t just some country singing daddy’s girl…

But every now and again there comes along an artist whose back story is somehow credible enough, and seemingly genuine enough that it just fits them perfectly into their place on the musical map. The latest of these rarities to emerge is none other than Sturgill Simpson, the Kentucky raised and Nashville based musician who is on a mission to bring back the good old fashioned country music of yesteryear. He was raised on bluegrass, he was a drifter who worked on the rail roads in Utah, he joined the US Navy just so he could drop out of the US Navy, and he definitely didn’t acquire that lumberjack chic style from Topman, oh no, he most probably found it in a skip.

It almost feels as if Simpson has gone to every length to ensure that he’s not a pretender, that he’s the real deal, and not one of “y’all playing dress up and trying to sing them old country songs”, as he snarls on High Top Mountain. Hammering home this sense of authenticity is the prevailing theme on Simpson’s debut album, which offers up a collection of country music in it’s most raw and archaic state. To do this he enlisted some heavy-weights of the genre to play alongside him; the kind of blokes who played piano and steel guitar for legendary outfits in the hey day of 70s honky-tonk and have names like Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins and Robby Turner. He even produced part of the record at a Nashville studio aptly named Hillbilly Central.

Owing to all the added baggage, it is at first instinctively difficult to disassociate what we hear on this otherwise artistically earnest album from the kitschy paraphernalia of its genre. You can’t help but remember that these are songs from the same musical vein as Dolly Parton and Billy Ray Cirus. Songs that you might otherwise expect to hear at any over 50s line dancing night, or in any dreadful road-trip movie when the gang of North East city kids cross the Mason-Dixie line, indicating the passage into Hick Country, the land that modernity forgot.

But, refreshingly, what we get on High Top Mountain, surpasses those unfortunate memories of what killed country music all those years ago and scratches at the surface of its deeper and richer history, revealing the struggles of a man who has scraped the bottom in his quest to remain true to his musical roots.

So named after the craggy peak which provided the backdrop to the singer-songwriter’s childhood, High Top Mountain reveals a tumultuous tug-of-war relationship between Simpson and the American South. Sonically, the album is rooted in the sounds synonymous with the region’s musical past. Nimble banjo picking and cantering drums interchange with weeping steel guitars and deep tinkerings of piano throughout the record. All the while Simpson’s southern drawl switches personality in a flash from the aloof and bitter loser on the likes of “You Can Have The Crown” and the quite brilliant “Some Days”, to the wise yet weary down and out on “Water In A Well” and “Hero”, both of which lie on just on the right side of the scale between poignancy and soppy sentimentality.

But Simpson presents a conscious unease with the cultural ancestry he adopts on High Top Mountain. The singer bemoans tales of being forced to write songs ‘about outlaws and the way things used to be’ by record label men, and he cleverly makes artistic profit from the conflict between following musical ambitions and having bills to pay. The image so pithily surmised with the lyrics: ‘Been sitting on my ass like a bump on a log watching Andy and ol’ Boss Hog… instead of sitting on the couch trying to find the next line, I’m sure there’s gotta be a better use of my time, like figuring out which one of these banks I’m gonna rob.’

If the great revival of country music is to happen, all the Dukes of Hazardry and myths of outlaws are exactly the sort of nonsense that need to be stomped out, and Sturgill Simpson knows this. And this is what he does; there is nothing rootin-and-a-tootin or yeehawing about this album. He may look the part and definitely sounds the part but deep down we know he’s just a bloke who takes pleasure in the business of making music he loves. He is the bonafide country and western messiah if you will who is prepared to put himself on the line for the good of the cause as he emphatically muses on High Top Mountain‘s lowest ebb: ‘what’s a honky got to do around here to get a little recognition/start to think I might be worth more to everybody if I was dead’. Live on Sturgill, live on.

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