I thought it would be poetic and appropriate that my very first throwback review would be of the album that preceded the very first album I’ve ever reviewed on Country Perspective. Yes, the first album I ever reviewed on here was Sturgill Simpson’s classic sophomore release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. So with Sturgill continuing to surge in popularity after his recent performance on Saturday Night Live and steadily gaining new fans with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I figured it would be interesting for those new fans to take a look back where it began for Simpson: his debut solo album High Top Mountain. Released in 2013, Simpson funded it entirely himself and with it his goal in his words were to make the most country album possible. Simpson was relatively unknown, with some fan base gained from his days as the frontman of the group Sunday Valley. In many interviews Simpson said he listened to a lot of old bluegrass records and it certainly shows in High Top Mountain.
The album opens with “Life Aint’ Fair and the World is Mean.” This always a favorite in the live setting, but Simpson no longer plays it live because as he rightly says he’s past this moment now. The song is about his start basically, trying to make it and thanking his family. And of course how life isn’t fair and how mean the world can be as he sets out to make music. I also love the line in this song about how the most outlaw thing he’s ever done was “give a good woman a ring,” sort of a subtle reminder to the outlaw label everyone loves to slap on any indie artist who makes traditional country music. “Railroad of Sin” is an absolute foot-stomper and pure bluegrass at it’s best. There are a few songs I would cite as the standouts on this record and one of them is “Water in a Well.” It’s your classic country heartbreak song, as Simpson explains their love has dried up like water in a well. “Sitting Here Without You” is essentially a companion song to it, as a man realizes his woman has been running around on him and he could have been out looking for someone else. Dave Cobb really nails the production on these two songs and of course is a big part of what makes Simpson sound so great.
Then we get to the fan-favorite, “You Can Have the Crown.” Simpson sings of being King Turd on Shit Mountain and if anyone wants the crown they can have it. The rowdy, steel guitar-laden track really puts you in the place of where Sturgill was just four to five years ago: an independent artist just getting by and praying he can find a record deal to feed his family. Fortunately for him that came, but then he was just making music with no idea what was next. And of course he was also trying to figure what the hell rhymes with bronco. My favorite of High Top Mountain though might be “Hero.” Simpson pays tribute to his father and how much he’s meant to him in his life. You can just feel how much this song means to him. The honesty and genuineness is just so palpable and is really felt by the listener. Another highlight is “Some Days.” It’s amongst some of Sturgill’s most truthful things he has written in his career and really the song that encapsulates how we can all feel on a shitty day.
“Old King Coal” is Sturgill’s look at the coal industries impact on Appalachia. It provided the livelihood for many for years, but now it’s gone and these old coal towns are broke. “The mountains are gone” as Sturgill sings and these jobs are never coming back either. At the same time these jobs are what killed all of his forefathers and he’ll be the first to not die of black lung in his family in generations. The album closes out with two covers. The first is a cover of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “Poor Rambler.” Simpson does the bluegrass king justice and we also get to hear a lot of the great Pig Robbins on piano. The last song of the album is the Steve Fromholz-penned “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” made famous of course by Willie Nelson. It fits Sturgill perfectly, as the song is about having to be crazy to give up making music and most importantly crazy to give up the love of his life.
High Top Mountain was a pretty damn good debut from Sturgill Simpson and greatly setup for the breakthrough on the following album. While I’m sure many of Sturgill’s new fans have went back to listen to Metamodern, I urge them to also make sure they hear High Top Mountain. One thing you’ll find is how distinctively different each of his albums are and how it’s obvious that the eventual fourth album will be different too. Country purists openly hope for another record like this one, but it just won’t happen because that’s just the kind of artist Simpson is, as he doesn’t like to stick to an exact same sound. With High Top Mountain you get Sturgill at his core and that’s pure country music.
Recommend? – Definitely!
Album Highlights: You Can Have the Crown, Hero, Some Days, Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean, Old King Coal, Water in the Well, I’d Have to be Crazy
Bad Songs: None