Videos by American Songwriter
This article appears in our upcoming May/June “country” issue. Subscribe here.
On a cold and clear day in January, Sturgill Simpson has just made camp in Chicago. He and his band drove in from Clear Lake, Iowa, where they opened for Dwight Yoakam at the Surf Ballroom the night before.
Surf is famous for being the last venue Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played on February 3, 1959, the night they boarded a plane that would only make it about six miles outside of Clear Lake before crashing down in stormy weather.
“They still have the phone booth that they all called their wives from that night,” says Simpson.
The young bass player in Holly’s group, Waylon Jennings, didn’t get on the plane that night. He gave up his seat in a coin toss and went on to become one of the founders of outlaw country, a sub-genre that still has a strong foothold today with artists like Jamey Johnson and Eric Church.
“The most outlaw thing that I ever done is give a good woman a ring,” sings Simpson on “Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean,” off his new album, High Top Mountain, which mostly works to subvert the outlaw myth.
Not that Simpson disdains outlaw’s forefathers, but High Top Mountain tells his own story. He started recording it in mid 2012, laying down tracks at Hillbilly Central and other studios in Nashville with players like “Pig” Robbins on piano and Robby Turner on pedal steel. Simpson says the record is an effort to “capture the music my grandfathers played.”
“In the early ’80s, the old mountain guys were still around, which is very strong imagery from my childhood,” he says. The record goes from Waylon-esque ballads like “Water In A Well” and “Time After All” to up-tempo bluegrass numbers like “Railroad Of Sin” and “Poor Rambler.”
The album is named after a cemetery where many of Simpson’s family members are buried, near his family’s home in the Appalachia coal town of Jackson, Kentucky. The town is on the Kentucky River in Breathitt County, about 50 miles south of Sandy Hook, where Keith Whitley was born, and also not far from Cordell, where Ricky Skaggs was born.
“I love it. In my heart it will always be home,” says Simpson, who left Jackson as a young kid for Versailles, outside Lexington. “But to be honest, I’m glad my mother got me out of there when she did. I don’t know what I’d end up being or doing if I’d stayed in Eastern Kentucky my whole life.”
On “Hero,” Simpson tells the story of his grandfather, who was “born on a summer day in some dark holler way back in the hills of Perry County.” The song is reminiscent of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” or Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” – songs that are personal gems that have become anthems.