ACL Review: Sturgill Simpson

So outlaw even an Eighties techno-pop hit becomes hardcore country

Leave it to 37-year-old Sturgill Simpson of Jackson, Ky., to make the giant Honda stage at ACL Fest feel like a small-town VFW hall on a Saturday night.

Photo by Jana Birchum

The thing about it is, the third-generation outlaw country singer and his crackerjack fivepiece could’ve just as easily shifted into a gear more befitting of Levitation Fest. Exhibit A: The lead guitar work of Laur Joamets, whose brilliant Telecaster manipulations conjure modes encompassing pedal steel to Jimi Hendrix. Then again, for all of its stripping country down to its honky-tonk foundations, the original outlaw scene wasn’t exactly purist.

Purism’s certainly the last thing on the mind of Sturgill Simpson and his Waylon Jennings boom. Over the course of an hourlong set, the singer turned Stax-Volt nugget “You Don’t Miss Your Water” into a twangy lament. He also effortlessly dropped T. Rex’s “The Motivator” into his own “Railroad of Sin.”

The afternoon was hot, and so was the pickin’. Heavily favoring last year’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Simpson hardly addressed the crowd, letting his songs do the talking for him. Yet for all the potency of his compositional skills, it’s his interpretive gifts that astonish.

Best display? A mid-set cover of “The Promise,” where he takes an annoying, Eighties techno-pop hit and transforms it into a mordant lover’s plea. He invests it with enough ache, regret, and humility that it could only come from raw experience. Confection becomes substance in a mortally wounded reading.

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