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.

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Throwback Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘High Top Mountain’

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I thought it would be poetic and appropriate that my very first throwback review would be of the album that preceded the very first album I’ve ever reviewed on Country Perspective. Yes, the first album I ever reviewed on here was Sturgill Simpson’s classic sophomore release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. So with Sturgill continuing to surge in popularity after his recent performance on Saturday Night Live and steadily gaining new fans with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I figured it would be interesting for those new fans to take a look back where it began for Simpson: his debut solo album High Top Mountain. Released in 2013, Simpson funded it entirely himself and with it his goal in his words were to make the most country album possible. Simpson was relatively unknown, with some fan base gained from his days as the frontman of the group Sunday Valley. In many interviews Simpson said he listened to a lot of old bluegrass records and it certainly shows in High Top Mountain.

The album opens with “Life Aint’ Fair and the World is Mean.” This always a favorite in the live setting, but Simpson no longer plays it live because as he rightly says he’s past this moment now. The song is about his start basically, trying to make it and thanking his family. And of course how life isn’t fair and how mean the world can be as he sets out to make music. I also love the line in this song about how the most outlaw thing he’s ever done was “give a good woman a ring,” sort of a subtle reminder to the outlaw label everyone loves to slap on any indie artist who makes traditional country music. “Railroad of Sin” is an absolute foot-stomper and pure bluegrass at it’s best. There are a few songs I would cite as the standouts on this record and one of them is “Water in a Well.” It’s your classic country heartbreak song, as Simpson explains their love has dried up like water in a well. “Sitting Here Without You” is essentially a companion song to it, as a man realizes his woman has been running around on him and he could have been out looking for someone else. Dave Cobb really nails the production on these two songs and of course is a big part of what makes Simpson sound so great.

Then we get to the fan-favorite, “You Can Have the Crown.” Simpson sings of being King Turd on Shit Mountain and if anyone wants the crown they can have it. The rowdy, steel guitar-laden track really puts you in the place of where Sturgill was just four to five years ago: an independent artist just getting by and praying he can find a record deal to feed his family. Fortunately for him that came, but then he was just making music with no idea what was next. And of course he was also trying to figure what the hell rhymes with bronco. My favorite of High Top Mountain though might be “Hero.” Simpson pays tribute to his father and how much he’s meant to him in his life. You can just feel how much this song means to him. The honesty and genuineness is just so palpable and is really felt by the listener. Another highlight is “Some Days.” It’s amongst some of Sturgill’s most truthful things he has written in his career and really the song that encapsulates how we can all feel on a shitty day.

“Old King Coal” is Sturgill’s look at the coal industries impact on Appalachia. It provided the livelihood for many for years, but now it’s gone and these old coal towns are broke. “The mountains are gone” as Sturgill sings and these jobs are never coming back either. At the same time these jobs are what killed all of his forefathers and he’ll be the first to not die of black lung in his family in generations. The album closes out with two covers. The first is a cover of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “Poor Rambler.” Simpson does the bluegrass king justice and we also get to hear a lot of the great Pig Robbins on piano. The last song of the album is the Steve Fromholz-penned “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” made famous of course by Willie Nelson. It fits Sturgill perfectly, as the song is about having to be crazy to give up making music and most importantly crazy to give up the love of his life.

High Top Mountain was a pretty damn good debut from Sturgill Simpson and greatly setup for the breakthrough on the following album. While I’m sure many of Sturgill’s new fans have went back to listen to Metamodern, I urge them to also make sure they hear High Top Mountain. One thing you’ll find is how distinctively different each of his albums are and how it’s obvious that the eventual fourth album will be different too. Country purists openly hope for another record like this one, but it just won’t happen because that’s just the kind of artist Simpson is, as he doesn’t like to stick to an exact same sound. With High Top Mountain you get Sturgill at his core and that’s pure country music.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Definitely!

Album Highlights: You Can Have the Crown, Hero, Some Days, Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean, Old King Coal, Water in the Well, I’d Have to be Crazy

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Country Perspective’s 2014 Album of the Year Winner

From the very first listen, I knew this album was something special. I remember listening to it over and over the day I got it. Critics everywhere have heaped praise upon it. You the readers overwhelmingly picked this album as the best of the year. Derek and myself agreed that this album was the best. The very first winner of Country Perspective’s Album of the Year award is Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

There were a lot of great country albums throughout 2014 and yet none of them could top Sturgill’s album. I knew this was the album to beat after listening to it. There were a couple I thought were close to Sturgill’s, but they just weren’t quite as great as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This album established itself as unique and different from the rest with its first song, “Turtles All The Way Down.” I don’t know of another country artist who sings about reptile aliens made of light and Buddah in the same song. This song challenges religions and pushes the boundaries in terms of subject matter in country songs, yet the whole theme of it is love. Really the whole album centers around the concept of love.

The album explores these variety of subjects and goes into a psychedelic journey at times, yet most of the songs on this album sound like something from outlaw days of country music. “Long White Line” and “Life of Sin” in particular cause some listeners to liken Sturgill to Waylon Jennings, a comparison Sturgill is getting tired of hearing about. I don’t hear it and I think Sturgill is simply Sturgill. One of the biggest surprises of the album is Simpson covering When In Rome’s new wave pop song, “The Promise.” Only a talented artist like Simpson could take a cheesy love song like this and make it sound like a moving love ballad.

 

Of course the most ear-catching moment in this album is at the end, when the song “Just Let Go” begins. It’s a song about letting go of your ego and other bad traits, living life to the fullest. It’s also the prelude to the psychedelic journey of “It Ain’t All Flowers.” This song absolutely pushed the envelope on the traditional sound of country music and really all of the music Simpson has released up to this point. This unique sound is just brilliant. Mainstream country music says they’re pushing the boundaries and evolving country music by including rap and auto-tune in their songs, but that’s bullshit of course. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is a real example of pushing the boundaries of country music and evolving it into a new, unique sound. This is the kind of stuff country music needs.

Over the course of 2014 people slowly, but steadily took notice of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The album peaked at #11 on Billboard Hot Country chart, despite no label or radio pushes. As I type this out the album is in the top ten of iTunes country albums chart, right next to Luke Bryan and Eric Church. That’s absolutely insane for an artist that was hardly known at this time last year. Yes he grabbed critics’ attentions and dedicated country music fans’ attentions with his debut album High Top Mountain (also a great album), but he wasn’t getting mainstream media attention. Now he’s done interviews with the likes of New York Times and Grantland. He’s played on Conan, Letterman and The Tonight Show. He went on Joe Rogan’s podcast and gained a lot of new fans. He won the Americana Award for New Artist of the Year. He’s been nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album of the Year. All the while just making the music he loves.

2014 was truly the year of Sturgill Simpson. The sky is the limit for him now. But I know all of this recognition doesn’t matter to him. He just wants to do what he loves and provide for his family. That’s pretty damn cool. I think the best thing I heard about Simpson and this album was this quote from Simpson in an interview with American Songwriter:

“The last year, every show all I heard from the fans is ‘Man, I don’t even really like country music, but I love what you guys are doing.’ To me, nothing tells me that we’re achieving our goal more than hearing somebody say that. There’s a lot of people out there who hate country, especially younger people, because they’ve never actually heard what I and many people call country.”

This quote has stuck with me. This quote sums up why Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is not only the best country album of 2014, but one of the best albums across all of music.