Sturgill Simpson/The Ballad of Dood & Juanita/High Top
3.5 Out of Five Stars
Sturgill Simpson doesn’t back away from a challenge, nor for that matter, any opportunity to expand his parameters. Early on, he came across like a throw-back to an archetypical southern rocker, all gruff and tempestuous and obviously eager to portray himself as a self-styled insurgent.
Lately though, he’s earned more than a measure of respectability, including a Grammy win for Country Album of the Year for his 2016 effort, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (which was also accorded mention for Album of the Year), and a nomination for his 2019 opus, Sound & Fury. He’s opted to play within the parameters to an even greater extent, courtesy of a quick succession of albums titled Cuttin’ Grass Vol.1 and Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2, each of which paid heed to his love of bluegrass and featured an impressive roster of pickers and players that helped inform the authenticity.
That said, his new outing, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, is his most rugged and resilient yet. Simpson’s third release in just the past twelve months, it’s yet another example of his unfettered ambition, a concept album that Simpson himself describes as “a simple tale of either redemption or revenge.”
Whatever the choice is mostly left to the imagination, but given a supporting cast that includes Willie Nelson, Sierra Hull, and bluegrass greats Stuart Duncan, Scott Vestal, Mike Bub, and Tim O’Brien, there’s no doubting his aim for authenticity. “Ol’ Dood,” “Shamrock,” “Juanita” and “Go In Peace” are each draped in traditional trappings in an attempt to maintain a historical connection, though the story is based more on fiction than fact. Nevertheless, Simpson and company tap into a variety of musical trappings and treatments, most of which sound as if they were spun from old mountain stories relayed in back porch settings. It’s ageless in fact, and a credit to the musicians’ reverence and regard for an archival sound, one firmly rooted in heartland sentiment and heart-worn emotion.
There are many examples, but the one that’s most striking is an a cappella offering simply titled “Sam.” A mournful farewell to a faithful canine friend, it taps into universal emotions and summons a clear connection.
Indeed, it seems that Simpson’s inspiration and ambition are intrinsically tied together, allowing him to credibly conceive this further foray into abject Americana. His commitment to the cause is both admirable and well worthy of recognition.
Photo by Semi Song