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Sturgill Simpson applies new twists to country traditions

Country music singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson performed Tuesday at Crossroads KC.
Country music singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson performed Tuesday at Crossroads KC. Special to the Star

Sturgill Simpson has a voice and a songwriting style that evoke other eras of country music, but he’s much more than a revivalist and a re-enactor. He’s an artist who applies his own flavors and flair to several country traditions, and the results have made Simpson something of a cult hero.

Tuesday night, Simpson drew a crowd of more than 1,200 to a sweltering Crossroads KC, significantly more than the 300-plus who sold out his Knuckleheads show in December. Simpson is touring on his second album, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” which received a Grammy nomination and ended up on scores of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists.

He played that album nearly in its entirety, tracks from “High Top Mountain” and a few covers, including songs from the Stanley Brothers, Lefty Frizzell and T-Rex.

Simpson brought with him a stellar four-piece band. His steady and sturdy rhythm section comprised Miles Miller on drums and Kevin Black on bass. Keyboardist Jeff Crow summoned a variety of sounds and moods, including funk, soul and honky-tonk country.

But the star of his band is guitarist Laur Joamets, an Estonian who has studied plenty of the masters, including Jimmy Page, Roy Nichols, Danny Gatton and Ry Cooder. All night, his leads and fills were frugally flashy, especially when he coaxed the sounds of a pedal steel out of his Fender Telecaster.

Simpson’s music taps into a variety of styles, from the sounds of Nashville, Bakersfield, Calif., and Simpson’s native Kentucky. Once in a while, he dips into classic Southern rock, as in “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which feels like an early Lynyrd Skynyrd song.

The set list brought out the range and shifting dynamics in those songs, from ballads like “Water in a Well” to rowdy bluegrass numbers like “Poor Rambler” to the hymn-like “Time After All” to “Some Days,” a country-rock anthem with some funk in its pockets.

Even within songs, Simpson and his bands shifted dynamics, like during “Could You Love Me (One More Time),” which started as a country-folk ballad, then opened up into a full-throttle anthem, with Simpson unfurling a voice that is deceptively strong.

That voice draws instant comparisons to Waylon Jennings’, and there are deep resemblances. But Simpson also inflects his voice with little yelps and yodels, like Dwight Yoakam. After singing “Time After All,” he advised the crowd that he and the rest of the band had caught some kind of bug in Colorado and that he was feeling a little hoarse and stuffed up. It hardly showed. He sounded strong to the finish.

The big crowd, a mix of country folks, suburbanites and city hipsters, whooped, danced and hollered throughout the show. “Living the Dream” got a big ovation. So did “Turtles All the Way Down,” the “hit” off “Metamoments.” The cover of the Stanley Brothers’ “Medicine Springs” stirred some low-grade rowdiness.

However, two ballads that came later in the show fell a little flat among a crowd that slowly grew restless in the unrelenting heat: Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors.”

Other highlights: “Just Let Go,” a “Metamodern” song that Simpson said he rarely played; and the loping honky-tonk version of Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway.”

Simpson brought the evening to a close with a three-song encore, all covers. First, a country-soul rendition of “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” a song Willie Nelson recorded for his “The Sound in Your Mind” album back in 1976.

Then Simpson and his band tore through “Listening to the Rain,” by the traditional bluegrass duo the Osborne Brothers, which Simpson’s group fused with a feral take on T. Rex’s “The Motivator.” It all felt like the breaking and dismantling of traditions. Or the start of a new one.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SET LIST

Sitting Here Without You; Water in a Well; Long White Line; Time After All; Poor Rambler; Voices; Could You Love Me (One More Time); Medicine Springs; A Little Light; Living the Dream; Life of Sin; Some Days; Sad Songs and Waltzes; It Ain’t All Flowers; Railroad of Sin; Just Let Go; Amarillo Highway; I Never Go Around Mirrors; You Can Have the Crown; Turtles All the Way Down; I’d Have to Be Crazy; Listening to the Rain/The Motivator.

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