Sturgill Simpson Defines Nashville Success His Own Way

Every few years, a new "save country music" campaign gets kicked off. This year's poster boy for the movement is Sturgill Simpson, a Kentucky native who just released his first solo album, High Top Mountain, after more than a decade in and out of the music industry. "If there was a representative of Honky Tonk Heaven right here on Earth, he'd sound a lot like Sturgill Simpson, and the record would sound a lot like High Top Mountain," read the review in No Depression. The website, in fact, has adopted Simpson as the popular face of its cause this year. "If there is one artist symbolizing hope for real country music in 2013, it is Sturgill Simpson," that site's editor wrote earlier this summer.

But Simpson himself has complicated feelings about the industry, and his place in it.

"I'm just trying to save myself, man," he says.

He says it best in the very first song on High Top Mountain. "Life Ain't Fair and the World Is Mean" is an outlaw-style anthem that plays down Simpson's outlaw bona fides: "The most outlaw thing that I've ever done is give a good woman a ring," he sings.

But it's easy to see why fans of traditional country music have latched onto High Top Mountain as fiercely as they have. Simpson's voice bears an eerie resemblance to Waylon Jennings', and he sometimes using phrasing identical to Hank Williams Jr. The disc features contributions from pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, a Country Music Hall of Famer who's recorded with George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Loretta Lynn. It's a throwback album that's not sentimental or nostalgic—it's just hard-hitting, basic, old-fashioned country music.

It's the album that Simpson, 34, has been waiting all his life to make. It just took him a little longer than he expected. Following a stint in the Navy after high school, he spent the late 1990s and most of the '00s performing in his hometown of Lexington, Ky., with the three-piece country-rock band Sunday Valley. Eventually he got tired of sharing his songs and made the move to Nashville at the end of 2010 to pursue a solo career.

"I eventually realized I wasn't being true to myself," he says. "You reach a point where it isn't rewarding. Basically, what I came to realize is that I was tired of yelling or screaming over top of myself. All those songs were written on acoustic guitar. They were country songs that got turned into what you hear on the Sunday Valley record. Now I just want to make country music."

The move to Nashville further highlights Simpson's unconventional relationship with the industry. Relocating was the big step that kick-started his stagnating career, but not through the usual channels. High Top Mountain was self-released, and Simpson says the biggest lessons he learned from Music City were about what not to do.

"You see all these people doing it for certain reasons, and maybe because they're willing to compromise or sacrifice a certain number of things, a lot of stuff comes a lot easier," he says. "It's an industry. There's good people and bad people, and if you allow yourself to be surrounded by the bad people, it's just this never-ending chain of parasitic leeches who all derive a living and make money off the backs of hard-working alcoholics and drug addicts. There's that sad, tragic element of it. ...

"It's mind-numbing how much talent is consolidated in this city—people you'll never hear of," he continues. "They'll never get to make a record because of all the leaps and bounds involved there, and it's sad and tragic. Real country music is very much alive here. You can go out pretty much any night of the week and get your mind blown. But a lot of that very seldom translates into a product coming off of Music Row."

And that's enough to keep Simpson skeptical of the mainstream music industry, even as the accolades for High Top Mountain keep rolling in.

"I realize that the only way I'm going to be happy or build any kind of career is to just go tour and reach people in small clubs," he says. "For all the critical praise the album's got, nobody's calling me or knocking on my door and saying, hey, we really believe in this, let us put this out, redistribute it with some real money and publicity, and we won't change a thing because we believe in it so much. Nobody in the industry is saying that, and that tells me I accomplished what I set out to do."