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Sturgill Simpson Defines Modern Bluegrass

Would you buy an album with a cover of the artist sitting on a lawn mower?

Well if the singer is Sturgill Simpson, it might pay! For that cover contains probably the bluegrass album of a troubled year.

Simpson, himself a recovering victim of Covid-19, has released his first bluegrass solo album featuring 20 rendered tracks from previous releases. It is titled Cuttin’ Grass – Vol 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) - hence the distinctive green ‘n gold mower cover.

It comes only a year since his last album Sound & Fury, which, not surprisingly, is the only Simpson release not represented in this splendid compilation. Most of the songs, in fact, originate from his first three albums – High Top Mountain, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

In an Instagram posting, Simpson proudly proclaimed: “I am releasing what I feel to be the best work and truest representation of myself as an artist that I have ever created.”

It is so named The Butcher Shoppe Sessions because it was the last completed album at the now defunct Nashville studio named The Butcher Shoppe, which had been co-owned by two old friends of Simpson - John Prine, who died in April, and Producer David Ferguson.

“I cannot imagine a better final chapter to the legacy of what was my favorite studio on Earth. I am grateful beyond words for the time I was given with John and the love and wisdom he gave to me,” Simpson added on his Instagram post.

He also had kind words for Ferguson, who has worked with Simpson over the past four years and is best known for being the sound-engineer on Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin recordings. “David has been a treasured and trusted friend to me in a town where I have had very few. So I turned myself and my art over to him completely for these recordings so I could focus solely on being just another member of the band”.

The Cuttin' Grass musical lineup (L to R): Mark Howard, Scott Vestal, Sturgill Simpson, Mike Bub, Sierra Hull, Tim O'Brien, Miles Miller, Stuart Duncan

That “band” includes some of the best bluegrass pickers in Nashville – Sierra Hull (mandolin), Mark Howard (rhythm and lead guitar), Tim O’Brien (rhythm and lead), Scott Vestal (banjo), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass), together with Simpson’s loyal drummer Miles Miller.

The Kentucky native ventures back to his childhood roots when he was first introduced to bluegrass music by his paternal grandfather. But it was not until some years later that he really connected to the genre, upon hearing a Monroe Brothers song on the car radio.

“I was pretty much drifting at the time – completely lost, I guess you could say and hearing that music brought everything to the surface. It sounded like home,” he said in a statement accompanying the release.

What Simpson has achieved in transporting his songs to bluegrass requires precise comparison with the originals, not only the tracks themselves but the overall mish-mash musical structure of each previous album.

The self-produced Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, for instance, spoke of sophisticated orchestration; even a hint of Van Morrison. The two numbers gleaned from that 2016 release – “All Around You” and “Breakers Roar” – have been fully stripped of their classical strings and screeching horns. Perhaps the greatest contrast comes from Simpson’s vocal treatment. It is somewhat staccato on Sailor’s, but so much more fluid - even racy - on the compilation, helped by some nicely-tuned harmonies with Hull, a popular solo artist in her own right.

Most of the songs – six each – are off his 2013 independent release High Top Mountain and the follow up Metamodern Sounds in Country Music 12 months later. The at-times honky-tonkish flavor of these albums provides another brand for comparison - “Water In A Well”, off High Top, and “Life of Sin”, from Metamodern, serving as the best examples.

“Water In A Well,” which closes the compilation, turns soft and soothing, helped not only by Simpson’s more compassionate - even deft - vocal treatment, but from clever plucking by Howard and O’Brien, adorned nicely by some subtle fiddle sawing. And the rollicking “Life of Sin” kicks off with Duncan’s fiddle and gets all hillbilly with the vocal harmonies bouncing off some hectic pickin’.

But the most endearing bluegrass treatment is appropriately given to perhaps Simpson’s finest composition “Old King Coal” (High Mountain Top) - Old King Coal what are we going to do/When the mountains are gone and so are you. It sounds like a song his Kentucky grandfather might have given him, and certainly one his old mate J.P. could have written! On Cuttin’ Grass, Sturgill simply nails it - helped again by smooth chorus harmony from Hull and co.

Cover recordings are indeed commonplace in the world of Americana music, but not so artists raiding their own catalogue for a specific genre rework. It is hoped that many will be inspired by what Simpson has achieved on Cuttin’ Grass. The fact that it is labelled as Vol 1 augers well for more!

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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