(This article originally appeared on CMT Edge.)
Fresh off accepting the Americana Music Honors’ emerging act award on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Nashville, Sturgill Simpson took the City Winery stage to a palpably amped-up room ready to hear what he and his three-piece band were going to do.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, all signs were pointing to his set at the brand new venue as being one of the hands-down, not-to-be-missed showcases of this year’s festival. In fact, credentialed attendees were asked to RSVP several days before the show.
Simpson has certainly earned the attention with the release of his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music album, while the two standing ovations during his blazing set of honky-tonk rockers and heartbreaking ballads signaled that those who attended his showcase had chosen wisely. It’s worth noting that the night’s three-time winner Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires were both in attendance for Simpson’s set.
Right out of the gate, Simpson launched into a blistering “Sitting Here Without You” that dared his band (and the audience) to keep up. He would return to this breakneck energy multiple times throughout the night on songs like “Poor Rambler,” “Railroad of Sin” and “You Can Have the Crown” — a song he introduced tongue-in-cheek by saying, “Here’s a song I wish I had never written.”
One of the most compelling things about Simpson is the equally impressive sad and tender side to his songwriting. All of the cheering he and his band incited during the barnburners were met with identically intense expressions of respect and rapt attention during songs like “Water in the Well,” “Voices” and “Old King Coal” — a song the Kentucky native touchingly dedicated as “a song I wrote about my hometown … that’s not there anymore.”
Throughout the night, Simpson also wove in a third songwriting thread that he’s quite fluent in — a sound I refer to as the classic country slink-and-thump. It’s that not-too-fast, not-too-slow 1970s-era mix of Tele-twang and shuffle drums found on songs like Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time” and Waylon Jennings’ “I’m a Ramblin’ Man.” While Simpson’s deep drawl and conversational delivery don’t exactly dissuade those constant comparisons to Jennings, you can hear an authenticity in his drug-and-drink ditties like “Life of Sin” and “Turtles All the Way Down” that shows appreciation over imitation.
Simpson’s final inventive ingredient of the night was his excellent choice of cover songs, from his achingly gorgeous cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise” (introduced with a sly “This one’s for the ladies”) to Buford Abner’s “Long White Line” to the Osborne Brothers’ “Listen to the Rain.” The latter song showed Simpson holding true to his promise that “we might sneak a little T. Rex into this one, as well.” For the few individuals in the crowd who may not have been familiar with his original songs, these covers allowed them a chance to join in on the singalong that had been going on all around them.
Getting to see a cool, relatively new artist in a brand-spanking new venue proved to be a recipe for an incredible night of music. Although Simpson’s “Life of Sin” contains the lyric, “The boys and me are still working on the sound,” it was clear to everyone in attendance at City Winery that Simpson has clearly already found it.
Also playing at City Winery on either side of Simpson’s set was Portland, Oregon’s own Caleb Klauder Country Band and Tennessee-by-way-of-Toronto desert rock songstress Lindi Ortega.
Klauder’s traditional country/bluegrass hybrid band wowed the audience with virtuoso playing and hollow-worthy harmonies, and now they also carry the distinction of being the first band ever to play on City Winery’s stage.
Ortega wonderfully wrapped up the night in her signature red boots and her twangy, south-of-the-border sound that defies her north-of-the-border Canadian roots. Her playful cover of the Bee Gees‘ “To Love Somebody” was a fantastic closer to the bombastic opening night of Americana festival showcases.