Sturgill Simpson, one of Americana Music’s hottest acts, has shocked the industry with a sudden Instagram announcement that he has ruptured his vocal cords and is cancelling the rest of his tour dates this year.
There had been speculation in the past week that he was troubled after he was forced to abandon several scheduled gigs, from Atlanta to Baltimore. And the confirmation came when he posted a scan of his larynx on Instagram and added: “Turns out I did in fact unfortunately hemorrhage/rupture my vocal cords after all. I am currently getting the best treatment available and should fully recover but it’s gonna be a long hot minute before I can return to stage.”
The cancelled concerts include five sold-out shows at New York’s Webster Hall and a headlining act over three nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. One of his last high-profile engagements had been to share top billing with Margo Price at the annual Merlefest in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in mid-September.
“I’m sorry to everyone that had tickets to the remaining shows and thank everyone that has supported me over the years. It’s been an incredibly fun, rewarding and educational journey, “ he posted. “I played all the venues I dreamed about playing as a kid, met all my heroes, even became friends with most of them, and got to work and play with some of the finest musicians on the planet over the years”
Simpson, accompanied by some of the finest bluegrass pickers in the business, had been touring to promote his most recent release The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, a well-received concept album released on the eve of his Merlefest appearance.
This release came less than a year after he had he returned to his Kentucky roots by reworking some of his previous work as bluegrass material in an album named Cuttin Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions. A second album – Cuttin Grass Vol. 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions – came as something of a surprise three months later. The critics were unanimous in their praise, especially for Vol. 1, and it rightfully won Album of the Year at the Americana Music Association’s annual Honours and Awards ceremony on September 22.
The bluegrass-rendition project, in which he enlisted the help of Nashville’s most influential acoustic musicians - Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Tim O’Brien, and Mike Bub among them - was conceived while Simpson was hospitalized with Coronavirus.
The concept album is of the same genre as the Cuttin’ Grass sessions- a mix of “traditional country, bluegrass and mountain music” - and, as expected, includes many of those musicians who worked with him on the bluegrass endeavour. There is also a surprise cameo by Willie Nelson on the track “Juanita”.
The release of The Ballad of Dood & Juanita had special significance when Simpson told Rolling Stone it could be his final release as a solo performer. “I’d like to form a proper band with some people who I really love and respect musically, and be a part of something truly democratic in terms of creativity,” he said on the eve of the release.
In a separate statement he had described The Ballad as “a desire to create a complete body of work.” It was inspired by both his real-life grandfather, who was known as “Dood,” and perhaps the greatest concept album of them all – Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger.
“I just wanted to write a story — not a collection of songs that tell a story, but an actual story, front to back,” he said.
The story is actually set during the American Civil War and tells of Dood, a war vet, who finally settles down on a farm with loving wife Juanita and two kids. The yarn takes off when a bandit invades the farm, shooting Dood and abducting Juanita. The star track “One in the Saddle, One on the Ground” recounts the moment when a wounded Dood rounds up his mule Shamrock and dog Sam and heads off to rescue Juanita. A man and his rifle/A mule and his hound/One in the saddle/One on the ground
Both “Shamrock” and the doomed “Sam” each get their own distinctive treatment in following tracks.
As might be expected, the songs from The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, which formed much of Simpson’s live setlist, were being greeted with rave receptions from fans in the early concerts on tour. Sadly, only time will tell if and when he gets to sing them again.
The news of Simpson’s haemorrhage has also cast a shadow over his joint career – acting.
In recent years he had appeared in two films Queen & Slim (2019) and The Hunt (2020) and had just finished playing a role in Martin Scorsese’s soon-to-be-released Killers of the Flower Moon.
As to what lies ahead, the Grammy-winning Simpson ended his Instagram posting with droll humour: “On the bright side, now I can finally really focus on other pursuits and areas of passionate interest, like becoming the best hitman I can be.”
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