One of the hottest young stars in Americana music is Sturgill Simpson. With a sound that pulls deeply from traditional country and Americana music and a tireless work ethic, Simpson's profile has grown considerably in the last year. At Americanafest, he performed as part of Ed Helms' Midnight Windup and then in a Showcase on Thursday night. We caught up with Sturgill on Sept. 20 at the conference to talk about his music and where he goes from here.
You made an appearance on Wednesday night at Ed Helms' Midnight Windup. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
Honestly, you probably know about as much as I do! I got a call a couple of days before to do it and we jumped on it. My wife and I are big fans of The Office with Ed Helms. The guys who were my backing band were all my age and similar styles. It was the most spontaneous fun I've had in a long time.
Your new album is “Hightop Mountain.” Can you tell us a little about what influenced your work on that album?
I wasn't shooting for any specific time period. A lot of people want to put kind of '70s time frame to it but I just wanted to do something that was unapologetically traditional, but not retro or a novelty album, and at the same time incorporating the modern sonic soundscape. Maybe there's a little psychedilia there, I listen to a lot of '60s rock and roll in there. I just wanted to hit that embodiment of traditional secular country music.
On the album, you got to work with a major legend, Hargus “Pig” Robbins.
That was surreal. Dave and I were discussing sonic texture and I said I really liked that big present overpowering piano, and Pig and Floyd were the only guys to really get that. Floyd is gone so Dave was like “let's just call Pig.” And I was like “What?” But Dave had his number. He came over and listened to the songs a time or two first. It was like watching a wizard work. He came out and just played it all perfectly the first time. Literally all his stuff on the record was first or second take at most. It really pushed me internally to do the absolute best I can and just detach the ego.
What do you take away working with legends like that?
That you're never good enough. You can always be better. There's no such thing as “I got it.”
What other bands influenced you? Who did you air guitar to as a kid.
All the obvious stuff. I had older cousins so by 5th grade they'd ruined my life good and proper. I bought “Appetite for Destruction” as a kid. Lots of Led Zeppelin, lots of Hendrix. Guys like Roy Buchanan, Fleetwood, lots of Delta Blues. I absorbed so much bluegrass and country as a small child that my palate rejected it for a while. I just had to step away from it. Jimmy Page was a huge influence.
When you're doing your music, what do you think bands like that who people wouldn't expect bring to your music?
Something I find incredibly lacking today, especially in modern country, it's attitude. Even guys like Bill Monroe had it. They had balls, you know. You could feel it. It needs to have some sauce on it, man.
That's a pretty good mention since if you've been down to Broadway today, we have the 30 Taylor Swift semis there.
It was very interesting. I had a thing over at Sirius yesterday with Bobby Bare and Marshall Chapman and these very different artists who are heroes of mine, I was a little humbled to be there. And as the show was going on, we're in this glass room and you could look down and see those semis circling the block like a fort and... I was torn, you know? I had sheer, utter, profound admiration for the business savvy of that, especially in this current environment but at the same time, being up there in that studio with a guy like Bobby Bare and seeing all those people humping and hustling just to put food on the table, that separation, that divide... I just zoned out for a second. It's interesting times we find ourselves in.
But while the modern country acts are selling out arenas, the more traditional music like Americana is coming on strong as evidenced by the growth of Americanafest and acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. What do you think it is, just in the last few years, that has taken that style of music and touched younger people?
Observational? The big stuff is always going to be there. There are always going to be people who only listen to that because that's all they find. In the big cities, trends dictate a lot of tastes. Now you have what the older people call “hipster kids” who are coming to country shows now with trucker hats. That's great. I don't want to cater to that because they won't be there in 3 years, but it's become a hip thing, which doesn't hurt. I try not to think about it too much. Ultimately it's kind of a distraction. Everything comes around. Merle Haggard was selling out stadiums in the '80s and now he's playing casinos. It breaks your heart.
Do you think the popularity of electronic music has given rise to Americana as a counterweight to that?
Definitely. There's a rejection of what some people think of a soulless music. But on the other side, I listen to all kinds of stuff. I've spent a lot of time in Tokyo and I know that, when it's done well, there's definitely a lot of talent applied. People say I'm crazy and I'll probably lose fans but I hope to incorporate some of that someday. Look at Billy Gibbons. He made that work with his music. This is the times you live in. I don't want to do what everyone else is doing. I don't want to make the next Hank Williams record because I am not going to do it as well as he did and he's already done it. You have all this technology now, why wouldn't you? Pink Floyd played with that stuff 40 years ago and that stuff is permanent. There's a lot of soundscape left to be explored, especially in country music.
Once you finish up here, what do you have going the rest of the year?
We're leaving town next Wednesday and we'll be on the road pretty much until Thanksgiving. We're touring the country all over. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Frisco. Then hopefully back in the studio in late November for a bit and then hopefully off to Europe in the Winter and Spring. Just working, man. Hard work leads to hard work. I got a late start so I feel like I have to gig and catch up.