“We’re going to slow things down a little,” warned Sturgill Simpson as his spirited but all-to-short country roots party wound down last night at Cosmic Charlie’s.
There was a time, during his waning days with the Lexington twang brigade Sunday Valley, when the Breathitt County native would have made good on such a promise with a stoic shot of country confession. In fact, there were a couple of instances during this performance – which clocked in at one hour to the minute – when Sturgill luxuriated in a drag of heavy yet poetic country reflection, especially during the forelorn Water in a Well. But this particular threat of performance deceleration was, quite happily, a balk. Simpson and his very capable back-up trio responded with Railroad of Sin, quite possibly the highlight of his forthcoming High Top Mountain album. It ripped along with the speed and agility of bluegrass but was also colored by an electric barroom flair that recalled Merle Haggard’s more restless ‘70s music. Add in vocals rich in the confident storytelling timbre of Waylon Jennings and you had at an idea of the roots music paradise that Sturgill, now a Nashvillian, operated from.
But this wasn’t some retro-country version of Spot the Influence either. The traditionalism in Simpson’s songs ran deep, illuminating storylines seemingly born in the shadows. “Sometimes I feel like a cutting a vein just to watch it bleed,” he sang during the show opening Some Days. That set up a sense of artistic autonomy that emerged full blown during Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean, an exquisitely frank view of the corporate Nashville thinking that refreshingly absent from High Top Mountain.
Musically, the show was just as engaging, thanks in no small part to the warp speed picking and orchestral ambience of guitarist Adam Davis, who mightily filled the plentiful spaces on High Top Mountain created by veteran Nashville steel guitarist Robby Turner.
There was only one misfire – a contained, countrified cover of the Roy Orbison hit Crying. Aside from being way out of Simpson’s vocal range, one had to ponder the worth of heading down such an obvious pop route when there were still several delights from High Top Mountain that went by the wayside. Original country music this solid and soulful deserved all the attention Simpson could give it.