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.