Sturgill, again, hits his mark proving he can succeed anywhere
The term “Outlaw” is thrown around in the country music realm. It brings about images of Willie, Waylon, slide guitars and independent music labels, but what the world fails to understand many times is that Outlaw music has just as much to do with attitude as it does the music itself. In 2017, Outlaw country music accepted another member into its highly selective arms in Sturgill Simpson.
After a set of divisive, progressive political statements from Simpson, he was blackballed by the Country Music Awards that year after massive success with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which even received a Grammy. In response, Simpson packed up his things in Southeastern Tennessee, grabbed his trophy and headed out to Staples Center—the site of that year’s CMA Awards. Instead of watching, performing and celebrating, Simpson showed the Outlaw in him and put on a free concert in the streets of Los Angeles in an effort to prove what the industry was missing.
Throughout his career, Simpson has treated the entertainment industry as more of a conquest than a victory. For example, Simpson will release a rock album straight out of early-’90s Seattle, then turn around and act in a movie (check out The Hunt if you have not seen it). After a Simpsons acting gig has bored him, he might release another album. This time it will be 1960s traditional country before moving on to a directorial position for a Netflix movie (Sound & Fury). This conquistador has controlled and taken every aspect of the industry that he has attempted. In his latest conquest, Simpson applies a bluegrass feel to a multitude of songs—all of which have been written and performed by Sturgill himself before—in his new 2020 album, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1.
Beginning the first cover with a mandolin, fiddle and upright bass, “All Around You” has all the staple elements of bluegrass music; however, the “Sturgill feel” pierces through, and the artist the world has known and loved holds it down in his own way. A reflection on faith in the center of loss, this particular track is the country equivalent of a remix. “All Around You” is actually his song first heard on the 2016 A Sailor’s Guide to Earth project. Though on Cuttin’ Grass, the Cajun, bluesy feel of the original song is given up for lightness and an Appalachian sound.
The second track on the album, “All The Pretty Colors,” is a cover of one of his own songs, yet it comes from a time when it wasn’t Sturgill Simpson alone. The lead singer of a band called Sunday Valley, Simpson recorded many different songs with them, lots of which went on to become some of his biggest hits. Sunday Valley’s “All The Pretty Colors” has traded guitars for banjos with Sturgill’s “All The Pretty Colors.”
Continuing down the path of honoring Sunday Valley, people come to the fourth song and highlight of the album: “I Don’t Mind.” Having only been out for a few weeks now, this song has catapulted itself to the top of Simpson’s commercial success. Originally, “I Don’t Mind” featured rock-heavy instrumentation. On Cuttin’ Grass, however, the track is slowed and given a soul. Simpson’s gritty, heart-filled voice pairs perfectly with the relaxed solemnity of the drums, light fiddle and foundational acoustic guitar.
“Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” is far and away the most underrated song on this album. Sturgill reflects on the ways the world has pushed him around. He begins with “well, that label man said son can you sing a little bit more clear, said my voice might be too genuine, your songs a little too sincere. Can you sing a little more about Outlaws and the way things used to be?” He goes on to try and stifle Simpson and his creative content—many times speaking on God, psychedelics and hard livin’. The creativity comes with the ironic turn of phrase he has at the end of the chorus when he says, “the most outlaw I ever done was give a good woman a ring.”
One of his most memorable and popular songs through the years, Sturgill redoes “Long White Line.” Because of his creativity, this particular song has seen both ends of the spectrum musically. Originally, “Long White Line” was a simple, groovy jam about hard travel. On this new record, however, “Long White Line” is transformed into an Appalachian anthem that is vaguely reminiscent of bluegrass legend, Ricky Skaggs. The intricate, technical instrumentation adds to the “Skaggs effect.”
Simpson concludes the album with three songs that are some of the best on the album. Starting with a cover of one of his biggest songs ever, “Turtles All the Way Down.” The bluegrass version of this song is interesting for two reasons. First, the content of most songs of this genre does not take into account “Marijuana, LSD, Psylocibin, DMT,” or “reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.” Second, the light, fun feel of the song does not express the intense emotion. After “Turtles All the Way Down,” “Voices” slows it down and shows Simpson’s sensitive and more traditional side. A look at mental health and environmental issues, Sturgill says there are voices “that just won’t go away.” Finally, people are given the marriage of bluegrass and the three-quarter time that is inherent to classical country songs in “Water in a Well.” Beautiful mandolin riffs are overlayed on a slow reflection about a love that has fizzled and died just like “water in a well.”
Overall, Sturgill has put together another incredible album. The few Sturgill Simpson doubters in the world may argue that an album of covers of one’s own music lacks innovation; however, being able to rework one’s own music in a new and interesting way requires a level of creativity that does not come around often. When this creativity and innovation are crossed with great music and transcendent talent, you find Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1.