Sturgill Simpson likes to tell stories. The Kentucky-bred singer-songwriter made his name on old-fashioned country music, a style that has historically lent itself to narrative songwriting. Having fully established himself as a skillful, somewhat subversive force within the genre — the kind that sings about drug-induced visions of turtles, wins Grammys, and inspires rhapsodic praise from certain kinds of authenticity fetishists — he took a real-deal Tokyo-drifting left turn with 2019’s Sound & Fury, lending his authoritative twang to a sleazy, mechanistic, boogie-rocking soundtrack for a 41-minute original anime feature. He has since branched out into Hollywood acting, booking roles in films like Queen & Slim, The Hunt, and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers Of The Flower Moon. This is an undoubtedly talented guy with an impressively varied resume.
In the eight years since his debut album High Top Mountain, Simpson has been telling a story about himself, too. He is a rebel, an iconoclast, an outlaw, both a holdover from a superior era and a visionary who can’t be constrained by anyone’s expectations. Whether busking in protest outside the CMA Awards, telling an interviewer that he didn’t talk to his record label anymore because “they don’t know what the fuck to do with me,” or naming Sound & Fury‘s opening instrumental after rōnin, the Japanese word for a wandering samurai with no master, the message has come across loud and clear: “Look at this guy! He does what he wants!”
When musing on the anonymous UK collective SAULT recently, the critic Eric Harvey made a fascinating point about the role of persona in popular music and “what music can lose without a distinct persona as an interpretive threshold.” But what you know about an artist does not necessarily make a positive impact on your experience of their music. I realize this says at least as much about me as it does about Sturgill Simpson, but his posture has left me with a strange mix of appreciation and apprehension toward his creative output. Gestures that should scan as Simpson enjoying his creative freedom tend to come across as him trying hard to demonstrate what a badass he is. Over the course of a half decade, I’d gone from a budding fan to a skeptic.
Lately, he has been chipping away at my skepticism again. You’d have to be pretty hardened not to appreciate Simpson’s pivot to his native Kentucky’s traditional bluegrass music on a pair of albums last year. Everything about Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 and its sequel Vol. 2 was winsome, from the punny title to the cover illustration of Simpson piloting a riding lawnmower. It all felt pleasingly lighthearted: just Simpson and a bunch of seasoned Nashville studio pros pickin’ their way through reinterpretations of his catalog, as captured by co-producer David Ferguson, a link between country O.G.s like Johnny Cash and “Cowboy” Jack Clement and their Gen X indie-rock disciples like Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney, and Will Oldham. Despite the pedigree of all involved, there was nothing portentous about it. The joy was palpable.
Now Simpson has recruited that same team — who he has dubbed “the Hillbilly Avengers” — for The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita, a new album released today with no advance singles. Although written and recorded in a week, the album a more high-stakes serious-artiste project than the Cuttin’ Grass volumes, and although I was ready to scoff at it, it has only continued to warm me up to Simpson again. The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita is named for Simpson’s grandparents — Lawrence Grey Fraley, aka Dood, died in 2017; his wife, Juanita, lives on — but set 100 years before their lives, during the Civil War. “I just wanted to write a story — not a collection of songs that tell a story, but an actual story, front to back,” he explains in the album’s press materials. That story is a simple one, set to pared-down arrangements Simpson describes as a “rollercoaster ride through all the styles of traditional country and bluegrass and mountain music that I love, including gospel and a cappella.” It’s an obvious homage to Red Headed Stranger — the 1975 classic on which Willie Nelson eschewed modern country trends in favor of a story told song by song, set to sparse old-fashioned roots music — and Nelson himself shows up to bless Simpson’s exercise with a guitar solo on “Juanita.”
That Latin-tinged number is one of an impressive array of sounds the album conjures while limited to acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, hand percussion, and the occasional jaw harp or harmonica. A prologue and epilogue take the form of an old military chant — whistling, snare drum, and a chorus of burly voices — and will immediately drive away those who find it unbearably hokey. For those who survive the pruning, there are blazing-fast bluegrass rave-ups and mournful country ballads aplenty, always delivered with campy retro flair. A horse’s gallop is evoked on the song devoted to Shamrock (“Only ever had one rider, anyone else was getting bucked”), while the tribute to Dood’s late, great canine companion takes the form of a cappella Southern gospel. The playing is consistently stellar, partially because it succeeds in functioning more like the score to an old radio play, fading into the background and coloring Simpson’s narration with the requisite drama.
Just as Red Headed Stranger told the story of a man who murdered his unfaithful wife and her lover, Simpson calls The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita “a simple tale of either redemption or revenge.” What happens is indeed mostly straightforward: The titular couple falls in love and starts a family in Kentucky in 1862. Dood is the sharp-shooting “son of a mountain miner and a Shawnee maiden,” known to be “harder than the nails hammered Jesus’ hands.” We’re told less about Juanita except that it’s curious her mother gave her a Hispanic name because “there’s no señoritas from the mountains where you came.” Despite Dood’s bear-like hands and his skill with a Kentucky long rifle (we’re told he could “blow the balls off a bat, reload, and shoot it one more time”) he has opted out of the war for a quiet sharecropper’s life. One day that peace is disturbed when a bandit kidnaps Juanita and shoots Dood in the shoulder, leaving him unconscious. Dood wakes up and goes looking for Juanita with Shamrock and Sam, his horse and hound. Sam dies along the way. (The album is so steeped in country tradition that there are two songs about the singer’s dog dying.) Eventually Dood encounters some Cherokee leaders who explain that a man named Seamus McClure traded Juanita to them for some horses. They give Juanita back to Dood, and upon returning her safely home, he hunts down McClure and murders him.
Though simple, the story leaves a lot to think about, both in regard to the myths of American history and the myth of Sturgill Simpson. Are we to understand Seamus as a stand-in for the white immigrants who barged in and upended Native Americans’ way of life? Are we to recognize Dood as an avatar for Simpson, who has retreated from the Nashville hustle to do his own thing, both figuratively and literally? (He and his family live on a remote Tennessee mountaintop accessible by unmarked country roads.) Some may chafe at a white guy in the 21st century spinning a yarn about indigenous people on the old frontier, like Tarantino continually re-writing history to procure vengeance for one oppressed population after another. The references to Dood scalping his enemies, while appropriate to the genre traditions Simpson is working in here, clash against a 2021 progressive sensibility where anything that could be perceived as a stereotype tends to induce flinching and even the Cleveland Indians have finally rebranded. If we are supposed to see echoes of Simpson himself in the story, that only adds to the self-styled cowboy image that makes me roll my eyes.
On the other hand, there really is something timeless about a tale of this burly fighter who has chosen to settle down on a farm rather than go to war, only to be startled back into action when his domestic bliss is jeopardized. The music is virtuosic while ultimately serving the song. And as a new Rolling Stone feature reveals, for Simpson, the whole ordeal is deeply personal: a tribute to the “Pawpaw” he idolizes, littered with local elements like Kentucky’s famed longrifles. Simpson had intended to write a Western but, upon realizing “that’s not where I’m from,” wrote an Eastern. When he played it for his grandmother, she silently hugged him and cried. Both the music and the story are closely intwined with Simpson’s own personal history. He sees the album as the cap-off to his solo discography and is thinking about forming a more democratic band going forward or just releasing singles from here on out. At home with his wife and kids, he seems content.
If context can turn you against an artist, it can melt away your cynicism too. For me, the sense that Simpson going out of his way to project a certain image is giving way to the sense that he’s probing deep inside his own heart and soul, indifferent to how anyone else will react. After this bluegrass excursion, he seems less like a guy trying to prove something and more like one with nothing left to prove. More importantly, the album itself is fascinating, both superficially fun and surprisingly deep, crafted with care despite its lightning-fast gestation period. I’m not sure I’ll ever love it the way some people will, but it’s growing on me, and so is Sturgill Simpson. More than ever, I’m curious to see what his next chapter holds.