Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions)’

Sturgill Simpson stayed true to his promise. He told the fans he would release two bluegrass albums if they raised enough money during Simpson’s charity run last summer and he delivered Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions) as a surprise album release as he had originally intended for the first volume. Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 took myself and many by surprise for just how damn good it turned out to be. So I expected an album at basically the same level with the second volume. But I believe Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 is actually even better.

The first thing that stands out about this volume is the album length. It’s a lot more concise at 12 songs and 40 minutes long. While I certainly didn’t complain about getting 20 songs from Simpson the first go-around, it’s admittedly harder to pick up an album and listen to it in one sitting with such a length in tracks. The second aspect is the track list for this is arranged in a deliberate manner, unlike the first volume that was in alphabetical order a la a mixtape. While it didn’t take away from me enjoying the first album, it’s always a better listen with a more arranged track list. And then the final aspect that makes this album stand out is the tracks largely revolve around people who are deeply close to Simpson. I’m not sure if this was deliberate of Simpson or just a nice coincidence, but this ends up making for a strongly connectable theme of cherishing and honoring loved ones.

The closer for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth “Call to Arms” opens Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 and it absolutely shreds as you expect from this frenetic song. This was a song I had my doubts about translating to bluegrass, but my concerns are immediately assuaged. The closing of the song shows how bluegrass fast-picking can be just as mind-blowing as a rock band jamming out. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” was the first single of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it was probably the least heralded track of the record. My memory of it is it’s a solid track that largely stands out for it’s thrashing guitars, but is overshadowed by other songs because it’s lyrics aren’t as strong. Yet in this version of the song I gain a new appreciation for the lyrics, as the clearer enunciation and quieter nature of the song really grip me. The latter part really makes this version stand out, as the song now feels more like a wise and sober reminder to enjoy life despite the hurdles. The songwriting is given a chance to breathe. Honestly this take of this song made me see more of what people who didn’t like SOUND & FURY saw in it. Great lyrics can be harder to appreciate with more aggressive production and rough enunciation.

I also think the new versions of both “Oh Sarah” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” are better than the originals. This version of “Oh Sarah” sounds better to me because it has a more somber, confessional feel about it and this better suits the story of the song. As much as I enjoy this version of “Oh Sarah” though, “Welcome to Earth” is hands down is among my top five favorites between the two volumes. The softer, gentler melody at the beginning gives the lyrics a whole new level of gravitas to the point where it’s tear-inducing for yours truly as I envision myself in Simpson’s shoes. It’s just a beautiful combination that is sweet to the ears. And yet the song breaks in the second half to a dizzying, happy crescendo of strings that’s arguably even better. The soaring melody is so full of joy and makes one imagine themselves waltzing through a sunny country hillside. It feels so appropriate on a song that celebrates the birth of life.

It would have been impossible for this version of “Sea Stories” to top the original for me, as it’s one of the clear best songs on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. But this one comes close, as the fun, singalong nature is still very much present. The harmonizing of The Hillbilly Avengers (as they’re officially dubbed now) is a nice touch to close the song too. I enjoy “Keep it Between the Lines,” but it has a harder time standing out both here and originally because the songs around it are stronger on a lyrical level. But I can appreciate the more fun nature of the songwriting on this and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle play feels particularly strong, which is fun to hear.

“Hero” is one of those songs that I’m always surprised doesn’t get mentioned more when Simpson’s best songs are discussed. It’s such a touching tribute to his grandfather and it’s only appropriate it gets a bluegrass version considering he’s the one who introduced Simpson to bluegrass. I also noticed how Simpson put the songs about his first-born son and grandfather back to back in the middle of the album, showing the line between the past, present and future of those that have helped shape who he is as a person. Simpson’s personal relationships with those he deeply loves are put on full display, so it’s easy to feel the heart behind this record.

Simpson dips into the rest of High Top Mountain with great success, as he finally figures out something to rhyme with bronco on “You Can Have the Crown.” And it’s a great, hilarious rhyme you would expect from Simpson. It’s shocking he even touched this considering his open disdain for the song in the past, as he said it was too “pop-y.” But maybe now he’ll play it live again with the updated lyrics. With “Some Days” this is a song where I enjoyed the original too much that I knew I wouldn’t like the bluegrass version as much. But it’s always nice to be reminded of one of my favorite Simpson lyrics “Well I’m getting pretty tired of being treated like competition/When the only one that can hold me down is inside my head.” On the surface it’s a braggadocious line about being unrivaled, but the subsequent lyrics reveal it to be more of a battle against your inner critic and how it holds you down more than those around you.

A couple more Sunday Valley favorites are brought back to life in “Jesus Boogie” and “Tennessee.” Both songs are fantastic and show the strength of his Sunday Valley songwriting. The first is a mournful, plead from Jesus to God, as he questions his place as the son of God and paying for the sins of the father. It’s one of those songs that makes me go, “Huh…I guess I never thought about this.” It’s fascinating not only for taking a different view on a common biblical subject, but coming up with a different angle altogether. And as I’ve said in the past, I’m a nerd over lyrics that greatly utilize not often used words like Simpson does with “My silver is dross, my water is mixed with wine.” “Tennessee” is immediately striking with it’s a cappella opening. Apparently this song was inspired by a small breakup between Simpson and his girlfriend who would become his wife later. The great detail in the lyrics of the distance both physically and emotionally between them during this time is really gripping and an example of a sorrowful heartbreak song done right.

Simpson closes the album with a really special song in “Hobo Cartoon.” The legendary Merle Haggard helped him write the song, as Simpson says Haggard passed the partially written lyrics onto him via text as Haggard’s health was declining as he laid in a hospital bed before his death. Simpson grew quite close to Haggard in his final years and highly praised Simpson’s work. And you can tell how much Simpson appreciated his friendship. This song feels like such a Haggard song, as the Bing Crosby and Jimmie Rodgers references are big giveaways. It centers around a simple character in a hobo and his story, but has a much greater message about cherishing memories of yesteryear. A poetic muse from Haggard as he was dying and a great common connection between two railroad men as they romanticize their pasts. Simpson said he “cowboyed up” after years of putting off finishing the song and I’m glad he did great justice to some of Haggard’s last written lyrics.

Sturgill Simpson delivers a fantastic bluegrass album in Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2. I dare say this is now amongst my top three favorite Simpson records, but more listens in time will reveal where this firmly sits in his discography. It will probably be a couple years before we hear volume 3, as Simpson is now turning his attention back to his fifth and “final” regular album that he says is still the plan he’s following he revealed years ago. But between these two volumes, I think there’s more than enough great music to listen to in the meantime. Regardless of your feelings of him, Sturgill Simpson has proved to be one of the most interesting and creative songwriters to emerge out of the 2010s.

Buy It

Sturgill Simpson Announces Departure of Guitarist Laur Joamets

On Sturgill Simpson’s rise to the top there’s been a familiar face with him. But as Simpson has announced on his Facebook page, it’s time for a “new chapter.” Lead guitarist Laur Joamets is leaving the group, as well as the trio of New Orleans horn players that have been touring with Simpson in support of his third album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Joamets, nicknamed “Little Joe” is leaving to simply pursue new opportunities as Simpson explains:

It’s certainly a bitter-sweet moment for longtime fans of Simpson, but certainly understandable. As someone who has seen Joamets play in-person twice, I can tell you all of the praise heaped on him is more than well deserved. Simply put he’s one of the best guitarists today and certainly was instrumental in helping Simpson make some of the finest music released in the last few years. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Joamets ends up with some kick ass rock group or something because he could play with just about anyone and I’m glad I got to see him before he departed the band. The Estonian guitarist is also in the process of becoming a permanent American citizen as Simpson explains, which is great to hear.

Simpson simultaneously takes over as lead guitarist, as he admits to missing playing electric guitar. The other big tidbit here of course is Simpson announcing “the beginning of a new chapter,” no doubt already turning his wheels about his fourth studio album. And with the horn trio leaving the touring band it seems like the next album won’t have as many horns if any at all. But as Simpson fans know all too well it’s impossible to predict what Sturgill has in-store for his music next.

Video: Sturgill Simpson Performs “All Around You” at the 59th Grammy Awards

sturgill-grammys

Sturgill Simpson had himself a pretty successful night at the 59th Grammy Awards. I know many are undoubtedly disappointed he didn’t pull off the ultimate upset and win Album of the Year for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but this shouldn’t overshadow the rest of what he accomplished (besides Beyoncé fans have more of a right to be angry about how much the academy screwed over Lemonade). Simpson first won Best Country Album on the pre-telecast, beating out the likes of Loretta Lynn, Brandy Clark, Maren Morris and Keith Urban. This comes after losing Best Americana Album a couple of years ago and marks his first ever Grammys win. It’s also yet another feather in his cap to hold over the folks on Music Row who don’t care for him. As he said in his acceptance speech, the revolution won’t be televised. Simpson also talked about working out in Utah on the railroad six years ago and says he owes it all to his family for being where he’s at today.

Later in the night on the main telecast, Simpson was introduced by the legendary Dwight Yoakam before he performed “All Around You,” backed by the fantastic Dap Kings. It was more subdued performance than the one he made on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, but classy and great nonetheless. I wouldn’t call it the best performance of the night (that would be a tossup between the Anderson .Paak/A Tribe Called Quest collaboration and the Bruno Mars/The Times tribute to Prince), but I would put it top seven for sure. Without a doubt I’m sure he reached more new fans with all of the exposure and last I checked “All Around You” was in the top 150 on the Top Songs chart on iTunes. You can watch his performance on the show yourself below:

Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’

2016 was a great, yet weird year for country and Americana albums. There was no doubt a lot of quality music released. The majority just wasn’t what we were expecting. There was also much debate over country music and defining it. But that’s what made many releases so surprising. Normally traditional acts got away from their usual sound, yet still delivered great albums. To me country music this year was about artists basically deciding the debate over country music for us. It’s no longer really about genre lines. It’s about real music that resonates with the human spirit and everyday life. When an artist goes into the studio to create art, they don’t go in with the mindset of making it fit into a box. They don’t let boxes and parameters determine their art. Their art determines the box it fits in. It simply defines itself. To me one album defined this lesson more than any other this year. That album is Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

I’ll be honest: most of the year I didn’t think I would give Simpson album of the year. I thought for sure another artist would come along and top him. In fact I was wishing and hoping that one artist would force me to give them album of the year. It never happened. I guess I might have fallen into the trap many fell into with this album too and compared it to his previous album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That album after all was flawless from front to back. It won our 2014 Album of the Year. It will probably be viewed as a classic years from now. Yes, it’s true that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth isn’t as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But it’s not fair to judge this album in this way because this a masterpiece of itself if you at what it symbolically represents.

Before I get to that though let’s point out a crazy fact: Sturgill Simpson decided to release an album about the birth of his child as his major label debut record. An artist who just captured the world by surprise with a future classic album decided to follow it up with an album on fatherhood, some would say is quite corny on paper. No other artist would do something so crazy because they don’t want to risk their newfound position. But Sturgill Simpson is no other artist. He put all of the new fame and expectations aside and made the exact record he wanted to make. He traded the groovy psychedelic stylings for a horns section. He made a record that some wouldn’t even call country. Simpson could have easily put out another Metamodern or even High Top Mountain and given right into expectations. This would have been simple enough, but Simpson has proven every step of the way that he doesn’t take the simple way. Instead he followed his heart. The guts and confidence to do this cannot be understated. This shouldn’t have worked and yet it very well did. Not to mention, Simpson also wrote all eight original songs himself and produced the entire album himself. He did all of his on his major label debut.

Symbolically, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth represents a giant screw you to both sides of the country aisle and critics like myself. It’s an utter disregard for the expectations set by both sides and the boxes each expect artists to hop into. Simpson essentially says screw your box, I have my own. He wasn’t the only artist to basically adopt this attitude with their music. I don’t think anyone out there is more sick and tired of the genre arguments than artists. The fans and some critics seem to be the only ones who care. As I said before, I liken genre labels to aisles at the grocery store. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you label something as long as you get what you desire. Why fuss over labeling? Most music fans desire great music and if they get that they’re not going to suddenly rebuke it if the music isn’t labeled properly. They’re just happy to get what they want. Purists can cry about the lack of steel guitar and outlaw themes. Pop country fans and label executives can complain it isn’t catchy or happy enough. Meanwhile Sturgill Simpson is heading to the Grammys competing for Album of the Year and thousands of people are singing the praises of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. (Funny enough I had decided on this as album of the year before the Grammys even announced his nomination and even had a majority of it outlined)

There’s an old saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same. While Simpson largely seem to go in a different direction with this album, he really didn’t when you get down to the songs themselves. Simpson has always written about life and the real things we can experience, specifically going off his own experiences. On High Top Mountain, the general theme is trying to make and find your way in life. Simpson sings of trying to make it in music and paying tribute to his family and wife who are behind them. On Metamodern, the general theme is finding meaning in life’s experiences and finding true love. Simpson sings of his old drug using days and the trials and tribulations of those experiences leading him to realize he just needed the love of his wife. Then you get to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, where it’s about a father welcoming a child into the world and trying to show the child the lessons they need to survive the crazy world we live in. Simpson tries to absorb the magnitude of welcoming his first-born into the world and reflecting on his own upbringing to bestow life lessons upon the child.

Simpson always has and always will continue to sing what he knows and experiences. It’s real life put into songs. That’s what every music fan wants out of their music. It’s a powerful thing when an artist can take their own life and be able to present it in a way that others can deeply connect with their own thoughts and experiences. It’s this shared human bond that tells us when the music we’re listening to is special. We don’t remember something for the genre it’s labeled. We remember something for being real and genuine. That’s exactly what Simpson delivers with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and why it’s Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year.

Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year Nominees

Throughout 2016 Country Perspective had the privilege to review a lot of fine music. The world of country, Americana and folk certainly produced it’s fair share of great music throughout the year, reviving old sounds and sparking new ones every step of the way. There was certainly a fair share of innovation and creativity on display from a variety of artists. And now we get to look back the very best that was released. We first take a look at the very best albums of 2016, which will be nominated for Country Perspective’s top award, Album of the Year.

When deciding what album will win the 2016 Country Perspective Album of the Year Award, Country Perspective will take into consideration some key aspects: songwriting, instrumentation, production, accolades, impact on genre, consistent quality in the album and how memorable they are. I will ultimately decide which album will win Country Perspective’s top award. But I’m not the only one deciding. Country Perspective encourages feedback from you the readers! Your comments and suggestions will most certainly be considered when determine who wins not only this award, but all the year-end awards here at Country Perspective.

One more thing: In order for an album to be eligible for Album of the Year, it must have received a perfect 10/10 rating in its review. No other albums are considered. Only the best of the best get a shot. This year I did a much better job I feel in grading, especially for the 10/10 albums and only gave a couple of grades that I ultimately found to be too high. After much consideration I found four albums were ultimately worthy of their 10/10 grades and fit to be the nominations for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year. So without further ado, here are the nominees:

Dave-Cobb-Southern-Family

Various Artists/Dave Cobb – Southern Family

Coming into 2016 this was an album everybody in the independent/traditional community were licking their chops in anticipation to hear. How could you not be excited for a project headed by super producer Dave Cobb, which everything he touches seems to turn into gold? To top it off an all-star cast of artists from both the mainstream country and Americana realms would be recording the music. Well the hype was certainly met, as this turned out to be exactly what many anticipated it to be and that’s one of the year’s best albums. While this didn’t make the impact I was hoping it would make, everyone who has heard it in both critics and fans circles seem to be in near unanimous conclusion that it’s brilliant. It’s hard to pick highlights on this album because you could pretty much say this about every song. Cobb got 100% out of each artist on the project.

After listening to Southern Family, you come away with a better understand and feeling of southern culture and lifestyle. It’s very easy to point out the problems that existed in southern culture in the past and the stigma this caused for the south is something that will remain with the culture for years to come. But it’s important to remember the redeeming qualities of the southern culture: family, friends, love, spirituality, home. All of these things southerners should rightly be proud of and point to as their defining qualities that make them great. This album celebrates southern pride with dignity and genuineness that should make any southerner smile. Cobb bringing together all of these artists who clearly understand southern culture, from both mainstream and independent realms, is not only a unifying moment for southern people, but country music in general. That’s something we can all appreciate.

BJ Barham Rockingham

BJ Barham – Rockingham 

Small towns are a pretty common theme in country music. If you turn on country radio you’re bound to hear some upbeat song that glorifies small town living and makes rural living out to be the greatest thing in the world. But the truth is there are a lot of harsh realities about small town living you won’t hear about in those songs. Luckily for us there are artists like BJ Barham who come along and give us the sad truth behind small towns all across America. Barham has spent the majority of his career as the frontman of the popular independent country group American Aquarium. But this year he decided to step out alone and release his first solo album, a project titled Rockingham that he wrote after the terrorist attacks in Paris. The result is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year.

BJ Barham’s Rockingham will flat-out knock you on your ass. It’s depressing as hell and it’s full of raw emotion. Don’t take this as bad as it’s quite the opposite. It’s a beautifully dark album that paints a poignant tale of the failed American dream, lost hope, the hells of small town living and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The songwriting is absolutely flawless and couldn’t be any deeper if it tried. While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the instrumentation on this album because the songwriting is so excellent, it also shines bright and does a good job of letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting. At eight songs long, this album is somehow the perfect length. It doesn’t let up and hits you in the gut every step of the way. I don’t think there will be another album released this year as morbid as Rockingham. But I don’t know if there’s an album better than it this year too.

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Sturgill Simpson capture our inaugural Album of the Year award in 2014 with his sophomore album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and now he’s back again going for his second win. Metamodern launched Simpson’s career into a whole new stratosphere, as he signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records and has quickly become a household name in country and popular critics’ circles. So in 2016 he was faced with the unenviable task of following up a near-universally praised album, while also releasing his first album under a major label. Of course in his own unique way, he delivered again.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth has received just as much praise from critics as his sophomore album, despite some grumblings from fans hoping he would have been more traditional with his music. The album debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 chart and went on to be #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, Billboard Top Rock Albums chart and the Billboard Folk chart. He’s also continuing to sell out larger venues across the world and appears to not be slowing down in the slightest in terms of his popularity. Needless to say Simpson wins in terms of impact of the nominees, but this is only one facet of the award.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is another masterpiece from Simpson. If you’re looking for another copy of High Top Mountain or Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, don’t bother listening. If you’re a fan of music and you trust Simpson, strap in and listen to this album because you won’t be disappointed. You will however be surprised, as Simpson once again takes a different approach in the sound department. There are multiple outright country songs and every song has country elements in them. But there’s also Memphis soul and the Muscle Shoals sound that deeply influence the album. Not to mention there’s lots of string production and horns in many songs. Is it a country record? Well I can tell you Sturgill Simpson wrote, produced and performed an album of phenomenal music. I can say this is Simpson’s most cohesive and tight-knit album yet. Perhaps the best answer to this comes from the late great Merle Haggard: “Good. If it’s what they’re calling country, you don’t want to go near that shit.” And Simpson did exactly that. Simpson gave us something we never expected and yet exactly what we wanted and that’s art straight from the heart.

Chris King Animal

Chris King – Animal 

Chris King came onto a lot of people’s radars in 2013 with the release of his album 1983. It was definitely a country leaning album. But his follow-up takes a different. King went Americana with his new album Animal and the creative shift pays off in spades to deliver an enthralling album on heartbreak and life. You could call it a concept album, but then again aren’t all good albums concept albums? There’s still a country influence in the album, but there’s also rock, pop and other flourishes. King and Animal are undoubtedly the underdog of these four nominees, as the other nominees are an all-star cast of names, one of the biggest artists in country music and a popular independent artist with a fairly large following. But King absolutely belongs alongside them, as he proves with Animal he’s a name you should be familiarizing yourself with if you haven’t yet.

Chris King delivers a storytelling masterpiece with Animal. Looking at each song individually on this album, you have some pretty good songs. Put them all together and they all connect for one long, spectacular journey. It’s the journey of a man exploring love, discovery, overcoming mistakes, the unknown and ultimately what we’re all looking for in this crazy thing we call life. Most albums are just a collection of songs, not really all connecting with each other. Sure you’ll find a lot of albums with similar themes and tones throughout, but very rarely do you come across albums that connect from start to finish like Animal does. It should also be pointed out that production on this album is just as flawless as King’s songwriting. Producer John Ross Silva really nails the tone and sound on this album, as it properly reflects the changes in attitude of the main story told throughout. Everything on this album works together perfectly. Chris King shows us all what a true album sounds like. Animal is one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.

That’s your nominees for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year award. Be sure to voice who you believe should win in the comments below.