Though Sturgill Simpson would start pushing hard at the boundaries of country music on his second album, his debut—High Top Mountain—is a solidly roots-conscious slab of hard country reverberating with echoes of classic honky tonk and '70s outlaw country. Yet somehow it never sounds overtly retro. Maybe part of the reason for the freshness of it all is that it feels like Simpson is really singing about himself rather than reeling off a rote collection of old-school country tropes. The opening track, "Life Ain't Fair and the World Is Mean," examines the challenges faced by a real-deal country singer trying to navigate the modern music scene. Simpson's maverick spirit is evident throughout the album, especially when he's casually tossing off expletives on the wry "You Can Have the Crown," ensuring the song will never get within a mile of the radio. But radio play clearly isn't Simpson's target—he's after a more intangible impact, the kind that artists from Merle Haggard to Willie Nelson have made on audiences' souls.