“With the help of you people we stuck it straight up Nashville’s ass!” Considering he was in the middle of the first of two very sold out shows at Stubb’s, it was hard to disagree with Sturgill Simpson’s cheerful proclamation on Thursday night. Over the last year the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter has emerged amidst a media frenzy as living proof that real country music not only still exists, but that its songs can be deep and thoughtful. Simpson’s place as a Nashville outsider and a proponent of psychedelic substances gives him that rare power to bring together rednecks and hippies and even hipsters. This was apparent from the crowd who gathered at Stubb’s and praised Simpson’s every move with massive applause. It also puts him in line with other cosmic cowboys who ditched Nashville and launched their own style of progressive country that attracted all types of folks. In the land where Willie Nelson is king, Sturgill was given a hero’s welcome.
True to his image as a humble performer and an industry outsider (who recently signed to Atlantic Records), Sturgill Simpson wore a denim shirt and sneakers. There were no flashy dances or wireless headset mikes. Instead, Simpson let his voice and songs speak for themselves, and that was all they needed. Gauging if the hype for any act is really worth it can be a subjective matter, and one can’t help but wonder if Sturgill was just in the right place at the right time. That being said, the man can write a damn fine song and sing his ass off. Like George Jones, Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings – all of whom he bears similarities to – Sturgill has a voice that is as smooth as it is commanding. The complexities come not in the stage show but in vocals that leave you hanging over every word and wondering what will come next. Credit should also go to his band, who skillfully kept that thumping groove going for every song, keeping momentum going full throttle and making it impossible not to at least tap your foot along. Much of the energy came from the speedy licks of Sturgill’s own Don Rich in Laur Joamets – a fired up guitar play from Estonia of all places. Songs from his acclaimed 2014 album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music made up a large portion of the setlist, but the band refused to be tied down by the album. Sturgill seemed to relish being in Texas, playing classic covers from the Lone Star State’s lesser-known country greats.
Throughout the ninety-minute set every moment was met with boisterous applause from a crowd basking in the aura of a real country artist playing real country music. There was no talk of big trucks, hot babes and watery beer - just a damn fine band proving that authenticity is still achievable. Towards the end of the show Sturgill joked that less than two years ago he was playing down the street at the Rattle Inn for about ten people, and now he’s on a streak selling out every single tour stop. Of course, Sturgill Simpson isn’t the only act tapping into the good stuff these days, but as long as his star continues to rise all players and lovers of real country music are better off.