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

Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

Every year modern artists will release their interpretations of classic Christmas songs, whether via singles or even an entire album. And maybe they’ll even sprinkle in a few originals if you’re lucky. But the problem is most of them don’t stand out in any way. You’ll listen to it once, say “that’s neat” and then go right back to listening to the same old songs you always listen to around the holidays. Occasionally though someone will actually release something worthy of earning a spot in your Christmas songs rotation and this year that’s Wade Bowen’s new Christmas album Twelve Twenty-Five. I had a great feeling about the Texas country artist’s first Christmas album when it was announced, and it went beyond even my own expectations.

Bowen opens with his rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and he knocks his performance out of the park. It’s infectious, fun and gets the Christmas energy on this album kicked off perfectly. And I’m happy the production doesn’t go over the top like it usually does when other artists cover this song. “O Holy Night” is next and this is admittedly one of my favorite religious Christmas songs. That’s because I feel it truly captures the joy and meaning of Christmas through the Christian lens and Bowen’s performance truly does justice to it, which isn’t surprise considering he released a great gospel album.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is next and I can tell that Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song influences Bowen’s own version. It’s got a more rocking feeling rather than the classical approach many take and even banters in the song like Springsteen. But Bowen pulls it off so much better than Bruce because he doesn’t over sing it (stay tuned for further elaboration on why I hate the Boss’s take on the song), and the guitars and pianos don’t blast the listener. Less can be more. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” showcases why I enjoy Bowen in more stripped-down songs. His voice just fits these piano ballads and the song also properly captures the feeling I look for in the covering of this song: mostly somber, but with bits of optimism and hope.

Bowen’s son Brock joins him on “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I must admit I usually hate children singing. But I actually enjoy this performance because it’s endearing, and Bowen goes full dad in the bridge of the song. It’s hilarious while also avoiding being corny and feeling forced. It feels real and as the listener I can appreciate and enjoy this. When I think of “Please Come Home for Christmas” the first version I think of is The Eagles’ version, as I believe it to be the best. And while I don’t think Bowen’s version tops it, it’s still pretty damn good, as he captures the yearning and wanting needed in his vocal performance.

Bowen is joined by another one of his sons, Bruce, on the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas.” This performance is much different than the other one, as both take this song more seriously and Bruce sounds pretty good. Their harmonies sound great too. You can tell the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as he may one day follow his father’s footsteps. It’s a heartfelt and enjoyable performance from the father and son duo.

I have to say I was surprised to see Wade Bowen cover the Mariah Carey classic “What I Want for Christmas is You,” as the song’s high popularity and sterling reputation amongst critics and listeners alike makes it a challenging song for other artists to tackle. Not to mention it requires some serious pipes to pull off. But he does a fantastic job! It’s a different take that I think is worthy of being in anybody’s Christmas playlist. Again, if you’re like me and you get sick of Christmas songs going a little too far with production at times these more minimally produced Christmas songs are a fresh change of pace. If you don’t want to spend time with this whole album, this is one of a few songs that should absolutely be heard.

“Til The Season Comes Round Again” is great to hear covered, as this song is a classic that often gets overlooked. It’s a warm blanket next to the fire type song that Bowen along with the soulful feature of Sean McConnell cover really well. The addition of McConnell harmonizing with Bowen is really the cherry on top to make it a memorable performance. Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas” is covered next and I will never complain about a Dolly song showing up. While this is one of the my less favorite takes on the album (it has the unenviable task of living up to Dolly and Kenny Rogers), it’s still solid and I like the Texas influences that are incorporated into the song.

The great Cody Canada joins Bowen for a rendition of Merle Haggard’s brilliant “If We Make It Through December.” I remember growing up I found this song to be kind of depressing and it is, but it’s also important that this unpleasant and for some people, really real look at the other side of Christmas be presented. It shows that Christmas doesn’t always go like it does in the movies and that reality and what you want don’t always align. In other words, why we love country music: it’s real.

Bowen goes to the other end of the spectrum with his cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And for some this might be sacrilegious to say, but I find Bowen’s cover to be better than the original by George Michael. The reason is 1) I hate the excessive synth on the original and 2) Bowen’s more stripped-down version allows the great lyrics to shine. Both these points play into each other, as the synths and overall cheesy feeling of the original really takes away from the quality of the lyrics that tell the complicated story of love lost around the holidays. This was easily an immediate standout on this album. Appropriate, the album closes with “Silent Night.” It’s just a natural closing song for a Christmas album and Bowen delivers a stirring and soulful rendition of this Christmas staple.

Twelve Twenty-Five is a modern Christmas album done right and I applaud Wade Bowen for accomplishing something that surprisingly so many modern artists screw up. Bowen takes classic songs and instead of trying to add some “twist” to make it stand out, instead just delivers them through his own voice with a country flavor while respecting the original takes on them. And don’t dismiss this as just a great country Christmas album. This is a great Christmas album against any genre.

Grade: 9 candy canes out of 10

Album Review – Dale Watson and Ray Benson’s ‘Dale & Ray’

Digipak 4P 1CD

Long-time readers know one of the things I’ve constantly harped for more in country music is duo collaboration albums. So it warmed my heart to see two old legends get together and release a new album to kick off the New Year. I’m of course referring to Ameripolitan artist Dale Watson and Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson. The longtime friends and icons have been apparently plotting an album together for over 10 years, but it just kept getting put off. Well it hasn’t put off anymore, as they’ve released their new record Dale & Ray. And thank goodness they didn’t put it off anymore because this album is pure country goodness from start to finish.

The old friends open with the introductory “The Ballad of Dale and Ray.” They sing of what they love, like pot, drinking and especially great country music. I specifically love the part where they sing of loving Hank Williams accompanied by an empathic “senior.” The iconic duo pays respect to the late great Merle Haggard on “Feelin’ Haggard.” They sum up how most of us felt the moment we heard we lost Haggard last year. In addition they pay respect to his impact and mention several of his best songs. It’s quite fitting and a great song to boot. They pay tribute to another great in Buck Owens on “Cryin’ to Cryin’ Time Again.” It’s a reference of course to Owens’ classic “Crying Time.” They hit it out of the park on their cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “I Wish You Knew.” The catchy instrumentation is what made me love it on the very first listen, as the twangy fiddles and steel guitar make it instantly infectious. It isn’t the only cover, as they also tackle Willie Nelson’s “Write Your Own Songs.” The song famously takes a no-prisoners aim at the record labels and the executives behind them, as it basically says they’re all lazy assholes. This is definitely a message I can appreciate.

“Bus’ Breakdown” is the duo at their most fun, as this bluegrass ditty recalls a business deal they made where Benson sold Watson a broke down old bus. Watson and Benson offer a message of hope on “Forget About Tomorrow Today.” At one point they reference the divisive nature of the recent election, arguing politicians don’t care about us and it’s best just to focus on what’s in front of us today. “A Hangover Ago” is your classic country drinking song, complete with the thick steel guitar throughout. “Nobody’s Ever Down in Texas” has a decidedly Western Swing sound and of course pays obligatory homage to the duo’s home state. The album closes with the waltzing love song “Sittin’ and Thinkin’ About You.” The light and breezy production really gives the song a carefree feeling, at the same time harkening back to the golden days of country music.

Dale & Ray is an album I instantly grew to love. Both Dale Watson and Ray Benson sound as great as ever, showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It’s no surprise these two deliver such a thoroughly great country album, as it’s what they’ve been doing their whole careers. This is also further proof of why we need more collaboration albums like this one because when you put together two highly talented artists like Watson and Benson you get something you’ll certainly remember. Dale & Ray is a really fun album and something any country fan should love and appreciate.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend ? – Yes

Album Highlights: Write Your Own Songs, Forget About Tomorrow Today, The Ballad of Dale and Ray, Feelin’ Haggard, Bus’ Breakdown

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


The Hodgepodge: What Song Defines Country Music to You?

willie-merle

It made it’s debut a few weeks back and now it’s back again. That right, this is an Ask The Readers Hodgepodge. It’s quite simple: I pose a question to you the readers and in the comments below we will discuss what our answers would be to the question. Sometimes it will be a yes or no question, but most times it’ll be something a little more detailed. This second Ask The Readers Hodgepodge will be quite subjective and should have a variety of answers.

If you had to choose one song, what song defines country music to you?

Guidelines:

  • This song can be from any era at anytime. Just be prepared of course to defend your choice, as someone will always be naturally curious as to why you chose a song.
  • There are no wrong answers, just like the previous Ask the Hodgepodge.
  • And of course feel free to pick songs for other genres if you feel like it, as we’re all music fans first.

 

As far as my answer for this question, the song I would pick that I feel defines country music is Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” There have been many versions of this song, but I would have to pick Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version as my favorite. The reason I would choose this song is it just has everything that a perfect country song should have. It was written by one of music’s greatest songwriters of all-time and performed by two of the best artists in the genre’s history. The song explores death, sadness and grief with some of the best storytelling you’ll ever hear in music. The instrumentation perfectly conveys the melancholy nature expressed by the lyricism in the song. To my ears it’s the perfect country song, defining the rich tapestry of the genre.

I would also highly recommend Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook’s version of the song, which is quite excellent too.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow William Michael Morgan will release his highly anticipated debut album Vinyl.
  • Also tomorrow the legendary John Prine will release his new duets album For Better, or Worse.
  • Aubrie Sellers new album New City Blues will be re-released through Warner Bros. Nashville tomorrow. “Sit Here and Cry” is going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • Strap yourself in for October because it’s going to be a very busy month of releases, starting next Friday when the following albums are released:
    • Shovels & RopeLittle Seeds
    • Mo PitneyBehind This Guitar
    • Brent CobbSolving Problems
    • Matt WoodsHow To Survive 
  • Josh Abbott Band’s new single is “Amnesia” and it’s going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • The Last Bandoleros released a self-titled, six song EP via digital services last week.

Throwback Thursday Song

Gary Stewart – “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” – I feel like a lot of week’s I’m picking too many well-known acts and songs so this week I wanted to find a deeper cut from the past. Stewart is sort of unsung when discussing the best country artists of the 70s, but he shouldn’t because his music is excellent. This is his biggest hit and one of my personal favorites.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial – So this is an album and group I’ve been hearing a lot about from fellow music fans and critics. It’s received widespread praise and finally I got around to checking it out. Well now I know why it’s getting so much praise. I’m not usually a big fan of emo indie rock, but the songwriting on display on this album is impeccable. Turns out Teens of Denial is the 10th studio album and 13th overall album by Car Seat Headrest and they’ve only been a band for six years. That’s insane! Check these guys out.

Tweet of the Week

The picture he’s referring to is John Prine hugging Isbell after he won Americana Song of the Year for “Something More Than Free” at the Americana Awards last week. I would be pretty damn happy to get a hug from a legend too.

A Spot-on Review of Luke Bryan’s New EP

luke-bryan-rehashed-bullshit

Luke Bryan released a new EP for his annual farm tour and predictably it’s not good. The only difference between it and his usual studio albums is here he thinks he can pander to farmers and the working people of America because I’m sure they see the millionaire artist who now sings about the clubs and dresses like a Nordstrom model as someone they can relate to (wanking motion). This listener above wasn’t fooled though and rightly calls him out.

The Hodgepodge: Country Radio’s 15 Minutes of Fame Strategy

This week’s opening will be short. I just started a new job this week so I haven’t had a ton of time to thoroughly think through this topic, but it’s something I want to dive into and would love to see readers’ thoughts on this.

Mainstream country labels seems to aim more and more for just one hit single. For all the radio hype Chris Lane got for “Fix,” his album sales tell a different story. Girl Problems hasn’t sold well out of the gate, debuting at #8 on Billboard last week and falling off the charts this week. Outselling Lane last week was Texas Country star Cody Johnson, who still remains on the charts this week. And Cody Jinks, who debuted at #4 this week with I’m Not the Devil sold more than Girl Problems did.

It’s not really breaking news that independent country stars have strong album sales, as we saw last year with Aaron Watson, Jason Isbell, Blackberry Smoke, and Turnpike Troubadours all reaching number one on the album charts. A main reason for this could be the fact that independent fan bases seem more willing to purchase an album to support their favorite artist. But being able to sell an album well, especially at the heels of a hit radio song, could signify the longevity for an artist. Yes, Cody Johnson and Cody Jinks have established careers and released multiple albums prior to Gotta Be Me and I’m Not the Devil, but strong album sales only cement their place with their fans and in the music industry.

However, with Chris Lane selling poorly after “Fix” hit number one just screams one-hit wonder. So many times, we see artists, particularly trend-chasing B/C-level artists, only perform well at radio with a song or two. Most albums seem to get delayed, or they simply just sell like crap. How do Chris Lane or Big Loud Records expect to see any follow-up success? Not that I want to hear another full-fledged pop song from Lane, but why wasn’t Girl Problems given the same type of promotion as “Fix”? I just don’t understand why they chose to play the short game for 15 minutes of fame. Chris Lane isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. This is just one of many, many problems with mainstream country radio.

Country radio is in the pits, and these hot, one-hit wonder type songs is a short-sighted attempt to gain listeners and revenue. Labels and radio execs aren’t thinking of the long game to improve and crawl out of its self-dug hole. I don’t claim to be a programming expert, but this type of strategy screams short-term thinking. It’s treading on water without looking for a boat to help stay afloat. And as long as radio continues this thought process, we’ll be continually treated to trendy singles followed by poor albums. Artists and labels who think solely about the one single and not the album are not building a sustainable music career.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Jack Ingram‘s Midnight Motel will be released tomorrow.
  • Whiskey Myers’ newest album, Mud will be released September 9.
  • Also coming out on the 9th is St. Paul & The Broken Bones‘ Sea of Noise.
  • Amanda Shires will release her new album My Piece of Land on September 16.
  • Erik Dylan‘s Heart of a Flatland Boy will be released on October 21.
  • Mack McKenzie is releasing his sophomore album A Million Miles on October 22.

Throwback Thursday Song

Merle Haggard’s “My Favorite Memory” This single from Haggard was released on this day in 1981, and would go on to become Merle’s 25th number one single.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Frank Ocean Blonde In an act of defiance against the major labels and streaming, Frank Ocean left his label and self-released his highly anticipated sophomore album exclusively through Apple. With labels/streaming services/artists all at odds, this kind of move is big and could lead to more artists acting in the same fashion.

Tweet of the Week

It’s been a big week for Erik Dylan, who performed at this Guy Clark tribute with the likes of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and others. Dylan’s upcoming album was also made available for pre-order.

iTunes Review for Florida Georgia Line

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 10.29.54 PM

This was left under Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots, which is due out tomorrow. I’ve only heard “H.O.L.Y.” and “God, Your Mama, and Me,” but I haven’t been crazy about either song. This review says it all!