“It’s good to see you guys,” Sturgill’s pale face turns towards the mic. His patchy mustache scans the crowd. “I never leave the fucking house.”
The mouths near the front of the stage roar up. The fists on the staircases leading down to the stage hit the air. The barstools lining the top floor of the venue lean in, fingers slapping against each other.
“I keep saying this and it’s true…” continues the voice.
The voice that sold out Third and Lindsley this evening.
And tomorrow evening.
And in the last three months, has napped a Grammy nod, an Atlantic Records contract and an opening slot for a Willie Nelson show at Austin City Limits’ Moody Theatre.
Isn’t taking any credit.
The voice hovers over the crowd.
“[You guys]…did this, man.”
Trying to put a finger on Simpson’s singing chops is a bit like trying to hammer nails into the Cumberland River.
The country singer can croon Bing Crosby into a Christmas tree ornament.
Other times, Simpson sounds like a garden hose getting run over by a lawn mower—circa Dwight Yokam in “One Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”
But the focal point of Simpson’s voice is its quicksand quality—the ability to be both steady and shaky at the same time. Think Elvis. Think “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” Think you’re damn right I’m going there.
“Everybody on the bus got sick,” the blue-collar shirt says to the hungry-eye faces below him.
The Third and Lindsley evening is the first Simpson has played since canceling four concerts.
Simpson leans against the mic.
“I got damn sick.”
Sturgill and his acoustic start in with Tennessee Waltz chords, long and slow against the sound hole:
If you need a friend
Don’t look to a stranger
You know in the end
I’ll always be there
The tune is the almost unrecognizable “The Promise”, an eighties pop number made popular by the band When in Rome. Sturgill’s Kentucky mountain vocals hack up every single pop ounce the lyrics might have left and spew out raw, Kentucky coal:
I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be
But if you wait around a while, I’ll make you fall for me
I promise, I promise you I will
A week of damn sick sounds damn good on Sturgill Simpson.
There’s a longhaired, small-framed figure on stage right. Indiscreet. Wearing all black and fiddling with a cherry red electric guitar.
“Let’s play a little bluegrass,” Simpson spouts from the center of the elevated floor.
His backing trio—a bearded drummer, a lanky bass player and the six-slinger—start into the bluegrass number as Simpson and his vocal chords sphinx the crowd:
I’m just a poor boy, had to beg, steal, & borrow
Just a leaf blowing lonesome in the wind
I’m just a hitchhiker on that old highway of sorrow
Just a highballing train on that railroad of sin
And then Simpson and his acoustic strap step stage left.
And the eclectic guitarist, with his patchy facial hair, steps forward.
That comes from the guitar’s strings is the horsehair of a bow hitting a fiddle. There is a fiddle on that stage. There is a fiddle somewhere on that stage.
At other times, the sound is a pedal steel guitar, straight out of Robert’s on Lower Broadway. Holy balls. Where are they hiding the pedals on the steel guitar?
The remaining sound being flung from the fingers of the pale guitarist is that from a small, dark venue in Texas. What does this guy DO to sound like that? Drink Gary Clark’s sweat?
But there is no fiddle on the stage. No bow. No pedal steel guitar. And no Texas perspiration.
“Laur Joamets,” Simpson gestures, a pleased look on his face.
The one European man smiles, then continues plucking the six threads with his five thin fingers.
The Best Part
You could argue that the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert is watching the wonder dust collect on onlookers’ pupils.
There’s the Jersey-Shore hulk of a man in the back of the venue, grinning and twisting his 250-pounds of muscle into the bluegrass coat being woven on stage. It sure as hell doesn’t seem like a natural fit on his frame.
He’s wearing the hell out of it.
There’s the short-sleeved youth, way up front, resting his temple against a woman with lines in her eyes, as she and he and Simpson croon out all the words to “Turtles All the Way.”
And then there’s the clump of twenty-something’s, towards the middle.
Scott’s eyes glance over towards his buddy.
So yes. You could argue that the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert is watching this wonder spell unfold.
But you’d be wrong.
Because the best part of a Sturgill Simpson concert, is allowing the dust to settle.
In your own eyes.
“This is my favorite song off the album,” spouts the pale face underneath the dimmed blue lights. Simpson’s mouth opens, as his band plays on:
Woke up today and decided to kill my ego
It ain’t ever done me no good no how
Gonna break through and blast off to the Bardo
In them flowers of light far away from the here and now
Oh my God it’s so beautiful
Everything is a part of me
It’s so hard looking through all the lies made of wool
But if you close your eyes it becomes so easy to see
Third and Lindsley/Nashville, TN/February 2015