Sturgill Simpson had big plans for 2020. In March, he had just begun a massive, months-long arena tour in support of his edgy rock record, “Sound & Fury,” but on the eve of an appearance at Virginia’s Hampton Coliseum, the entire trek was halted due to pandemic shutdowns. Soon after, Simpson ended up in an emergency room, feeling extremely fatigued with severe chest tightness, and he was diagnosed with COVID-19. After a long and slow recovery, he decided to re-evaluate his musical direction.
Simpson’s sound choices have been keeping audiences guessing since he released the breakout album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” in 2014. Upon the record’s release, he quickly became an Americana hero, mingling Waylon Jennings-style outlaw revivalism with broader cosmic-country leanings. The follow-up, 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” embraced horn-fueled soul-rock, while still notching Simpson a Grammy Award for Best Country Album. Then came last year’s “Sound & Fury,” a wild, at-times jarring effort full of distorted guitars that was released in conjunction with a Japanese anime film of the same name that Simpson also produced.
So, it was yet another surprise in the fall when Simpson, a Kentucky native, unveiled a stripped-down return to the roots of his old home place by quickly releasing “Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions,” a new album that finds the singer-songwriter reworking 20 of his previously released tunes with help from a crew of ace bluegrass musicians.
Simpson was introduced to bluegrass by his grandfather as a kid, and although he admits that at first it didn’t take, he eventually became enamored with pioneers of the genre, particularly the Monroe Brothers.
“Bluegrass music is healing,” Simpson wrote in a lengthy letter he released to accompany “Cuttin’ Grass.” “I truly believe this to be true. It is made from ancient, organic tones and, as with most all forms of music, the vibrations and the pulse can be extremely therapeutic.”
Simpson recorded the new acoustic set back in June in Nashville at Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio with production from Johnny Cash engineer David Ferguson, and he’s accompanied by a roster of all-star pickers, including mandolinist Sierra Hull, fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Scott Vestal and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien. With deft string work as a backdrop, Simpson’s songs are enlightened with vibrant, pastoral reinterpretation. Whereas tracks like “Railroad of Sin,” originally found on Simpson’s solo debut album “High Top Mountain,” and “A Little Light,” a standout from “Metamodern,” previously had insurgent grit, here they’re delivered with an unguarded, back-porch ease.
Simpson’s sturdy, drawl-heavy voice also sounds clear and comfortable—cradled by the high-lonesome harmonies and driving rhythms of the format. As a roots-leaning artist, Simpson has never fit a particular mold, and he’s been consistently outspoken about his displeasure with the mainstream music industry. Now free of a major-label record deal, he seems to be in a place that’s right in his wheelhouse.
“I’m realizing more and more every day what I already knew, which is that I was always supposed to be an independent artist,” Simpson wrote. “I’m just trying to look forward and create without any industry timelines or narratives and all the creative restrictions that inevitably come with them. The real benefit is that I’ve completely fallen back in love with music again.”
5 Essential Tracks
“Turtles All the Way Down”
The soul-searching best-known track from Simpson’s breakout album “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” morphs from a cosmic ballad into a driving bluegrass tune on the singer-songwriter’s new effort, “Cuttin’ Grass.”
“Keep It Between the Lines”
Simpson’s Grammy-winning 2017 album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is largely a life-lesson letter to his son. The effort’s standout track is a dusty, horn-driven funk romp full of advice about staying on the straight and narrow.
Another must-hear gem from “Sailor’s Guide” is Simpson’s moody roadhouse ballad take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
This bouncy electro-rock song that features the high-octane mojo of ZZ Top is one of the best offerings from Simpson’s wild 2019 effort, “Sound & Fury.”
“Railroad of Sin”
The initial version of this song, found on Simpson’s solo debut album “High Top Mountain,” chugs along with Johnny Cash-style fervor and is highlighted by rowdy electric guitar. It’s rebooted on “Cuttin’ Grass” with a series of fast-paced, fleet-fingered acoustic solos.
Cover photo photo courtesy Atlantic Records, creativecommons.org via Wikimedia Commons