Sturgill Simpson has always hinted at and talked about doing a bluegrass album throughout the years. Thanks to his dedicated, loyal fans who donated an overwhelming amount of money through his Dick Daddy Survival School charity endeavor he started on a whim on Instagram, Simpson lives his dream with Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions).
Now I expected this album to be good. Simpson’s love and appreciation for bluegrass has always shined through and if you want a true glimpse into this I highly urge you to read the letter he emailed to fans expressing his gratitude (along with an update on where he’s at now as a person and an artist). But man I did not expect this album to be this good. I don’t think many people expected this much out of an album that is mostly bluegrass renditions of his previous songs along with finally recording some gems from his Sunday Valley days.
But maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised because the list of people involved with this project are absolutely incredible and need to be recognized. David Ferguson produces the album, who’s been involved with numerous projects with Simpson. Mark Howard is on rhythm and lead guitar, Scott Vestal is on the banjo, Mike Bub is on bass, Tim O’Brien provides background vocals and is on rhythm and lead guitar, Simpson’s longtime drummer Miles Miller provides background vocals and is on percussion, and the iconic Stuart Duncan is on fiddle. Finally the player I feel who is most important on this album and that’s Sierra Hull on mandolin and who also provides background vocals.
Hull is the secret sauce behind why this album is so damn good. As always she shines brightly on mandolin, but her background vocals are just as integral to this album’s quality and there’s no song that’s more apparent on than “Breaker’s Roar.” The original version of this song on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was already hauntingly dark and beautiful. But this new bluegrass version is actually even better than the original, which blows my mind. Hull’s background vocals are a big reason why, as it gives the song a heavenly soft sound that feels equal parts soothing and trippy. It makes for such an addictive listen and it’s arguably the best moment on the album.
But there are a lot of moments that shine on Cuttin’ Grass. “All Around You” may not be the best opening song choice, as Simpson simply organized the track list in alphabetical order. It’s the complete opposite of his usual approach, as he’s said in the past he’s particular about the track list on his album and usually urges fans to listen to the album front to back to grasp their true spirit and meaning. But with this being such a casual and unexpected side project, I don’t think track list should be such a concern for listeners. This could easily be shuffled and enjoyed. As Simpson said this is his version of a mixtape and as someone who has listened to a lot of mixtapes from the world of hip hop, this fits the nature of them.
Back to “All Around You,” maybe it’s because it’s one of my favorite songs from Simpson, but it works for me as an opener. It works because it’s one of the best performances on the record and it feels like all the aforementioned players above get to shine in moments throughout the song. Duncan’s fiddle play and Hull’s mandolin player in particular gives the song that dynamic and uplifting feel that the original version of the song does so well.
“All The Pretty Colors” is the first of four Sunday Valley songs Simpson records on the album and each one are a welcome sight to those of us who have wanted them after years of shoddy recordings on YouTube. This one is about getting your heart broken and watching the colors fade away from your world. The hook of this song is so clever and catchy with the Van Gogh reference and the play on words with “And all the pretty blue is fading/From the sea of tears I’m wading.” The contemplative “I Wonder” is another heartbreak song about wondering where you ex is and what they’re doing now. The strings on this song give it an appropriately dark and brooding feel.
“Sometimes Wine” is about acting like you’re not broken up when an ex walks out the door, but then later coping with drinking and lamenting the loss. Despite the somber nature of the lyrics, Vestal’s banjo is pretty hot and gives the song a strong melody. Out of the four Sunday Valley songs though, it’s “I Don’t Mind” that is the undisputed best (consensus seems to agree too, as it was the highest selling and streaming song of the entire album when it released). What starts out as a beautiful proclamation of love and finding God quickly turns to a lonely man’s desperate plea for the love of his life to take him back. It’s one of Simpson’s best songs he’s ever written, as the aching pain and yearning for someone that was once so close and now so far is so poignantly described to exhibit the duality of love’s light and darkness. The only complaint I have is why did it have to take so long to get a proper version? No wonder his wife told him to not come home until he recorded this song for the album.
The bending sounds of the fiddle that greets you on “Just Let Go” are so satisfying and once again sets the tone perfectly for a song on this album. “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” unsurprisingly works really well as a bluegrass song, as do all the songs from High Top Mountain on this album. I especially enjoy the harmonizing of Simpson, Hull, Miller and O’Brien on this track. The same can be said of “A Little Light,” which has always felt like a bluegrass song, even though it was on the psychedelic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Simpson really blazes through a lot of the songs on this record at a blistering pace, which works for the most part. But it’s nice when he slows it down on songs like “Life of Sin,” “Old King Coal,” “Time After All” and “Voices.” It allows for the album to breathe a bit and let the melody simmer. But when he does let it rip on songs like “Long White Line,” “Sitting Here Without You,” “The Storm” and “Railroad of Sin,” it’s a lot of fun. Those last two songs in particular stand out, as the fury of both Simpson’s vocals and the guitars show how brawny bluegrass can sound. It’s the definition of when bluegrass “rocks out” and how a banjo can be just as powerful of an instrument as an electric guitar on full blare. This version of “Railroad of Sin” has a strong argument being even better than the original.
Two of Metamodern’s three most iconic songs, “Living the Dream” and “Turtles All the Way Down” were songs I was really curious to hear interpreted in bluegrass, as I would like to imagine these were two of the harder adaptions. While both of these are enjoyable renditions in bluegrass form, they definitely don’t touch the originals. The dripping steel guitar on “Living the Dream” and the tripping on balls nature of “Turtles All the Way Down” are integral to what make these songs so great. Not to mention the slower pace of the originals allows the lyrics to deliver better impact, while the more frenetic pace of their bluegrass covers lack gravitas.
“Water in a Well” closes the album and I love it as a closer because it features some of Simpson’s most impactful songwriting. This album also has a great focus on the earlier part of Simpson’s career and this song is one of his best from his early days. It’s another instance where Simpson does a great job of capturing the feelings of heartbreak, as it’s a complicated mixture of sadness, regret and getting over it. Hull once again shines too, as the mandolin gives the song a weeping nature that perfectly suits the lyrics and her background vocals once again add that needed extra emotional layer.
In Simpson’s letter he says he could do about 17 more of these mixtapes and that sounds great to me. On the next one I hope he tackles some bluegrass interpretations of SOUND & FURY, as it could make for an interesting challenge for him and the listener. People seemed to really overlook the quality songwriting of that album and I think bluegrass versions could make them re-evaluate it. His covers of The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening To The Rain” and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” would make fine additions too. But I’m not sure how difficult this may be to cover these songs nor his SOUND & FURY songs due to legal/licensing reasons. In the infamous Uproxx interview, he mentions licensing masters for a term before getting them back, so he may not have the rights to SOUND & FURY songs returned to him yet.
Sturgill Simpson is clearly in his element on Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1. He takes to bluegrass like a duck takes to water. Who knows what direction he will go on his fifth and supposedly final studio album and who knows when he’ll release Volume 2 of Cuttin’ Grass. In a tumultuous year, the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy this wonderful surprise from Sturgill Simpson.