It took the better part of three decades for Sturgill Simpson to land in Nashville – time enough to see the world before devoting his creative life to country music.
The journey started in Breathitt County – about 30 miles from Hazard in Jackson – before a “second” childhood commenced after his family relocated to Versailles. Then came a hitch in the military that took the teenaged Sturgill to Japan, followed by a stay in Lexington where he fronted the vintage-style country outfit Sunday Valley. Restless for a more financially solvent existence, he headed West to work for the railroad only to realize there was still music boiling inside of him and only one place to go if he was serious about realizing its release
“My wife basically told me, ‘You’re going to wake up one day and be 40 years old and know that you never really had the chance to properly give this a go,’” said Sturgill, 34, who will celebrate the impending release of his debut solo recording, High Top Mountain, with a performance tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s. (The album is due out June 11.)
“Basically, I just made a conscious decision to walk way, sell everything we owned and move to Nashville. I mean, whether it’s performing or writing, if you’re going to try and do this as a career in any facet, you have to be where people who can actually help you are.”
Those who remember Sunday Valley’s shows at the long demised Dame will a find in High Top Mountain a kindred roots country sound, one packing a revivalistic spirit even though its songs can hardly viewed at retro. Credit much of the traditional tone to help received by veteran session hands like pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins” and steel guitarist Robby Turner. Both helped define a Nashville studio sound in the ‘60s and ‘70s but have been largely forgotten by today’s country-pop stars.
“I told my producer (Dave Cobb) that I wanted to make a pure, traditional country record. I wasn’t trying to get rich. I didn’t care if I got signed. I wanted to pay homage to the past, but I didn’t want the record just to be some retro novelty niche thing.
“Playing with Sunday Valley in Lexington, I wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries a bit in terms of sonic exploration. But I wanted this project to have the feel of those old country records. And Dave said, ‘Well, let’s just get the guys that played on those old records.’ So here’s Pig. He’s 80 years old, a Country Music Hall of Famer, but nobody calls him up for sessions anymore. And guys like Robby Turner, who played with Waylon (Jennings) for about 25 years. Dave called them up, they came and listened and said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
“So looking out from the vocal booth in the studio to see Pig at the piano really, really forced me to step my game up. I had to do my best because these guys could call you out in a second if anything wasn’t up to par. It was a really good test just to find out what I was capable of. It did wonders for my confidence level. It was surreal.”
Then there are the songs, led on High Top Mountain by the hardcore honky tonk of Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean and the roots-driven Railroad of Sin. One seems almost defiant of the country music school of hard knocks while the other suggests a celebration of its excesses. But the genesis of both songs comes right out of Sturgill’s arrival in Nashville and the globetrotting that led up to it.
“Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean is kind of a knee jerk reaction to a number of conversations that had taken place over the course of my first year in Nashville. It came from working with industry people and seeing things that had happened to friends. I heard some real horror stories. More than anything, it’s about life, how I came to Nashville with a very naïve perspective and some very quick, hard lessons learned. Without being too specific, it’s my own personal reminder of what I don’t want to do.”
Railroad of Sin doesn’t deal with Nashville directly. Nor does it reference the tenure Simpson spent working for Union Pacific Railroad during a three year hiatus from Sunday Valley. It instead takes inspiration from Simpson’s Navy years stationed in Japan. He even returned there earlier this month to shoot a video for the song.
“Going to Tokyo in the Navy as a 19 year old from Eastern Kentucky, you’re talking culture shock,” Simpson said. “But I always felt like I left a piece of my soul there. Instead of college and frat parties, I spent a lot of time hopping subway trains and partying my ass off all over Tokyo. Where else could I possibly capture that feeling of the railroad of sin for a video?
“I’m from Eastern Kentucky, but I made a very conscious effort at a young age to go out, do a lot of living and see the world. My grandparents and my mother went through hell to give me these opportunities. In a way, it would be like spitting in their face to stay in one place my whole life.”
“But it’s really weird now, because when I do talk to people back home, there is no real perspective. They don’t really understand how far away I still am from actually making it. I’m still waking up every day and wondering how I’m going pay bills and stuff like that. It’s interesting. It’s been a great year for me. But it is still a long way to the top.”
Sturgill Simpson performs at 10 p.m. May 31 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave.
Tickets are $10. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to www.cosmic-charlies.com.