As soon as High Top Mountain begins to unspool, it's hard to shake the feeling that Sturgill Simpson's 2013 debut isn't some kind of tribute to Waylon Jennings. When the tempo slows down and the arrangements are stripped to an acoustic guitar, he can at times recall Jamey Johnson, but that troubadour himself owes a significant debt to Waylon, so having the slow tunes conjure Johnson isn't a dramatic shift in tone, but it does give High Top Mountain a bit of depth, suggesting Simpson knows he does not reside in 1978.
He'll admit as much in the lyrics -- he'll grudgingly accept the internet and other inconveniences of modern life -- but the sound belongs to the late-'70s and Simpson is particularly fond of the hard, lean, rolling sound of Waylon's outlaw period, molding his band and songs after the records that came after Honky Tonk Heroes.
If Simpson doesn't have the gravity of Jennings in his voice, he compensates with attitude, taking his sweet time to re-capture the long, languid strut of Waylon. Simpson's ace in the hole is how he can craft a song -- he can conjure the spirit of Jennings, never sounding as overwhelming as Waylon, but he can capture the muscular inevitability that pulsated through the peak of outlaw country.
High Top Mountain doesn't succumb to the weaknesses of prime outlaw -- the tunes aren't tired, they're fresh, often deriving from Simpson's pen -- and his evident passion means High Top Mountain feels fresh even if it so clearly means to conjure the ghosts of the '70s in every one of its songs and every one of its performances.