Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)’

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.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

“Some people might love it, some might not. I feel the same way about the new one as I felt about the last one before it came out. I’m nervous, but I made the record I wanted to make and the record I needed to make, I guess. I’m not even sure it’s a country record, to be honest with you.”

That’s what Sturgill Simpson had to say in his interview alongside Merle Haggard with Garden & Gun a few weeks back. It was quite the thought-provoking quote when I read it and it still is after hearing the album. To say A Sailor’s Guide To Earth was highly anticipated is an understatement. In 2014 Sturgill Simpson absolutely skyrocketed in popularity after the release of what I believe will be looked back upon as a classic album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Simpson went from critical country darling to indie sensation to major label artist with an ever-growing following in what felt like a blink of an eye. Many instantly labeled him savior and some still do. When we rewarded him Male Artist of the Year in 2014, I remember pointing out that he isn’t a savior, but rather a trailblazer:

Sturgill Simpson says he doesn’t want to be anointed the savior of country music and I don’t blame him. Who wants that pressure? He isn’t the savior of country music either. You know what I would call him? A trailblazer. Simpson is living proof that if you are talented and dedicated enough to do what you truly want in life, people will pay attention. He’s an inspiration to aspiring young country artists everywhere. Not only has he inspired potential artists, but the fans. It’s amazing the amount of fans he has accumulated over 2014, many of them new. Simpson has reinvigorated disenfranchised country fans to believe in the genre again. It has made a lot of people realize they can’t rely on radio for their country music.

Simpson alone won’t save country music. But he has clearly planted the seeds to a potential revolution in the genre. He could be one of the pieces to bringing quality back to country music.

Look at all of the great new and existing artists that have risen since Sturgill’s breakout. Jason Isbell reached #1 on the country albums chart, Chris Stapleton has had his own meteoric rise and Margo Price just played Saturday Night Live. Genuine country music is alive and thriving. So that brings us to Simpson’s third album and first under major label Atlantic Records, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Did it meet its lofty expectations? Yes. But in ways I never imagined. That’s probably how Sturgill preferred it too.

The sound of seagulls and a bell ring in “Welcome To Earth.” It dramatically segues into some smooth piano play before Sturgill begins to sing. “Hello my son, welcome to earth” is the first line Simpson sings, appropriate considering this album is for his young son. Simpson sings about the great love he has for his son and how much his life has now changed as a result of him being born. About halfway through the song though it abruptly changes to blue-eyed, Memphis soul with lots of horn instrumentation as Simpson sings about the guilt he feels when he’s away from his son on the road. The entire song brilliantly explores all of the conflicting feelings Sturgill feels about the impact his son has made on him in such a short time. The hauntingly dark, yet beautiful “Breakers Road” follows. In this song Simpson explores the mental demons and inner problems that can bring you down. It’s pretty depressing, but poignantly honest. As Simpson sings at one point, “heartaches can kill.” There’s a lot of string production on this song along with the pedal steel guitar. The amount of string instrumentation can be jarring at first, but sounds quite natural after multiple listens.

“Keep It Between The Lines” returns to that soulful, bluesy sound on the second half of “Welcome To Earth.” Out of all the songs on this album, this one is probably the most unlike songs on his previous albums. There are trumpets, horns and an organ prominent throughout it, making it one of the loudest songs too. Yet it fits Simpson like a glove and may be some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard from him. The song itself is Simpson giving his son life lessons and tips. “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done/It don’t have to be like father like son” Simpson sings at one point, hoping his son doesn’t repeat the same mistakes he made. This is followed by one of the best moments on the album, as Simpson’s fantastic lead guitarist Laur Joamets rips off an impressive, funky guitar solo. Joamets is an amazing talent and this is just another example of it. Simpson recalls his days of serving in the Navy on “Sea Stories.” If you’re looking songs similar to previous two albums, this song is the closest to them. Before this Simpson had never really sung about his days in the Navy, which makes this song more fascinating. In the song he refers to all of the stories of his time in the Navy and how he went from a pollywog (sailor who hasn’t crossed the equator) to shellback (sailor who has crossed the equator before). The songwriting is classic Simpson and it’s one of the most memorable on the album.

The song that has probably attracted the most attention on the album is “In Bloom.” This is of course a cover of the popular Nirvana song. Simpson is a big fan of Nirvana and has said this is his tribute to the late Kurt Cobain. Now is the part where I regrettably admit that I had never heard this song before Simpson covered it. I’m sorry, Nirvana fans! But after hearing Simpson’s version and Nirvana’s version, I now want to explore their music. Anyway back to Simpson’s version: it can take on a much different meaning than the original. Nirvana’s “In Bloom” is commentary on the mainstream fans showing up at their concerts and buying their music after becoming famous. This is despite them not really understanding the message behind Nirvana’s music and really just mindlessly singing along because it sounds catchy and it’s popular.

Simpson adds onto the final line of the chorus, “Don’t know what it means to love someone.” This can give the song a whole different meaning. At first I took the song being about someone who is young, perhaps as young as a teenager, who doesn’t understand what love is yet and the powerful impact it can have on your life. Perhaps this is Sturgill recalling where he was before his wife and son came into his life. The other message I could gather from it was it slightly modifies from Nirvana’s meaning. I could see it being about the people who thought his songs on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that mention drugs are about that and not love, the true theme of the songs. However you want to interpret this song, I think it’s absolutely astounding and yet another cover Simpson knocks out of the park.

The album’s lead single “Brace For Impact” follows this. This was the first song we all got to hear from the album and listening to it in the context of the whole album really makes it sound better. Listening to it alone, it could come off as weird and out of place. You could really say this about any song on the album. This is why Sturgill requested NPR’s First Listen to not allow individual listening of each song, forcing you to listen to the whole album. This song builds into the overall theme of Simpson teaching his son lessons and bestowing knowledge upon him and really the listeners too. The teaching continues in “All Around You,” as Simpson gets spiritual. He extensively explored spirituality in his last album, which at times got dark and admittedly a little weird. On “All Around You” though, it’s much more upbeat and happy as the song goes. Simpson tells his son that the world may be terrible at times and you may get lost along the way, but reminds his son that their bond and love will always exist. He also tells him that God is inside him, all around him and up above. All of these things will be there to show him the way in life. Again Simpson’s songwriting and production choices are just fantastic and makes you want to listen to the music over and over.

Simpson explores love and heartache on “Oh Sarah.” For longtime fans of Simpson they’ll instantly recognize this song, as his old band Sunday Valley performed this song extensively. The song is about the tension that can crop up in a marriage when your job requires you to be out on the road all the time. The wife is distressed about it, but the husband reassures her even though his life belongs to the road, his heart belongs to her and her only. You know just another love song that Simpson seemingly rattles off in his sleep that leaves you impressed. As Simpson did on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he closes out A Sailor’s Guide To Earth with a loud bang with “Call To Arms.” The instrumentation and lyrics are equally fierce, as Simpson makes some scathing commentary on war. This is not against the troops as Simpson is very much for them, but rather against the procedures and reasoning behind the war, along with the treatment of soldiers. For example he points out how he doesn’t want his son to be a puppet, which is insinuating how soldiers are used by the military. It falls very much in the same vein of songs like Corb Lund’s “Sadr City” and Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues.” The song closes out with one of Simpson’s most well written lines I’ve heard from him: “Bullshit on the TV, bullshit on the radio, Hollywood telling me how to be me, bullshit’s got to go.”

There’s nothing else to say except Sturgill Simpson did it again. 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.

Grade: 10/10

 

The Hodgepodge: Why Your Favorite Independent Country Artist Will Probably Never Make It Big

Sturgillguitar

The meteoric rise of Sturgill Simpson has been discussed in-length recently. He went from railroad worker to indie country darling to major label artist over the course of the last five years. It’s unheard of to see an artist rise up the ranks so quickly. The obvious thing people will point out of course is his music is great and that was what catapulted him towards the top so quickly. While this is a nice quality to have as an artist, tell me how many untalented hacks make it the top of any music genre each year? Look at all of the bro country pretty boys that have risen out of nowhere to mainstream attention. Their music isn’t worth a damn and they “made it.” Look at the one-hit wonder crap that comes out in pop every year. The point is you don’t need to be talented to make it.

Now obviously having talent and making it are much better than making it and having no talent. You’ll have much more respect with the former. No, what many people don’t point out with Sturgill Simpson’s rise is the brilliant strategy of his team and their marketing efforts. Corporate country blogs like The Boot and Taste of Country are just now covering Simpson, but that was only after every independent country outlet was covering him. One of the first to cover Simpson was Trigger at Saving Country Music, who has covered him since Sturgill was in Sunday Valley. Trigger brought a good amount of eyes to Sturgill, including yours truly. So impressing independent country outlets is something that helped Sturgill.

The other brilliant move by Sturgill was choosing Thirty Tigers as his “label.” He could have easily went to some minor label who would have forced him into their demands and wishes. As Sturgill said he was going to go into debt either way and at least the independent route and maintaining creative control with Thirty Tigers allowed him to do exactly what he wanted, when he wanted to. Most labels wouldn’t have allowed him to release an album in the fall of 2013 and then turn around in the spring of 2014 with another. By releasing music so quickly back-to-back he kept people interested him, including fans and country outlets.

One other great move on Sturgill’s part that helped him gain attention was touring all over the country and having interviews with countless news outlets. It seemed like everyday I was reading a new interview from him. Nothing about these interviews were fancy either. Sturgill was just himself and his honesty is a quality that’s endearing to many of his fans. So the combination of constant media coverage, brilliant marketing strategy and just damn good music is what helped propel Sturgill to where he is now. This is much easier said than done though. For every Sturgill Simpson, there are hundreds of artists dropping out of music every week.

I see so many people say, “Well if Sturgill can make it, [insert indy darling artist’s name here] can make it too!” Well I hate to tell you, but you’re probably wrong. “But indy darling makes better music!” So what? I just said above you don’t need talent to make it. “But if an artist makes great music, people will find it and listen to it.” Not necessarily. Your whole “Build it and they will come,” Field of Dreams logic doesn’t make sense here or really in most real life cases. I think better logic to apply here is the age-old quote: “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Not really. I’m sure there are plenty of great artists out there who made great music who have given up and moved on, just like Sturgill did at one point.

Mark at Spectrum Pulse, who reviews all genres of music, has brought this up numerous times concerning country music. He has said without a doubt country music artists are the worst when it comes to promotion and getting their name out to people. Many simply don’t do enough to be noticed or really anything to stand out. I myself see this everyday on Twitter. I get a few independent country artists following me hoping I follow back and write a nice, long post about how awesome their music is. Well here’s a news flash indy artists: I never do this. One because I don’t have the time and two I don’t owe you anything. If you want me to review your music and feature you on my site, reach out to me. There are plenty of independent artists that have and if I deem them appropriate for the site, I feature or review them.  And by reaching out I don’t mean requesting I copy and paste your bullshit PR piece. I don’t do that and don’t plan to ever do this. My job isn’t to promote artists. My job is to feature stuff my readers will be interested in and they certainly aren’t interested in PR fluff articles. If an artist makes great music, they definitely want to read about it.

Here’s the other common problem I see with independent, up and coming artists: no website. 99% of the time I will ignore an indy artist if they don’t have a website. Facebook pages and ReverbNation pages don’t cut it. An independent artist will never be taken seriously if they don’t have a website by news outlets like this or the fans. That being said a lot of independent artists don’t engage enough with social media. Now I know it can be a pain in the ass and many are so busy touring it’s hard to find time. I’ll just say this: fans appreciate being acknowledged. That’s really the other important aspect of Sturgill’s rise I almost forgot to mention. A dedicated, grass root of fans can definitely help you make it. Two big examples in mainstream country music are Brantley Gilbert and Chase Rice. Both have a very passionate fan base. When Jason Aldean started recording Gilbert’s music, I would see tons of comments from Gilbert fans crying how much better he is and that was what ultimately led me to find him. This goes back to engaging fans and making them passionate about artists and their music.

The point of this article isn’t to bash independent country artists. The point of it is to paint the reality of the situation. Sturgill Simpson is the exception, not the rule. It takes smart marketing and savvy deals (along with luck) to make it to the top. Also a lot of hard work, busting your ass on the road all year. There are a lot of artists that make great music that will never get heard because they don’t make the right decisions, don’t surround themselves with the right people and simply don’t catch enough breaks. The music business is cutthroat and harsh. Everyone can play, but only a few get heard.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Blackberry Smoke will release their new album Holding All The Roses next Tuesday. The southern fried, rock country group is releasing their first album in three years and it will be the first under new label Rounder Records. They were formerly with Southern Ground Records.
  • Love & Theft will also be releasing a new album, Whiskey On My Breath, next Tuesday. The lead single, “Whiskey on My Breath,” certainly impressed me and was different from anything ever released by the group before. Will the rest of the album be the same or is that song just an anomaly?
  • Dwight Yoakam just announced he will be releasing a new album titled Second Hand Heart, which will be released on April 14. The Bakersfield country artist was expected to release a new album this year and the announcement finally came. It will be the follow-up to this critically acclaimed 2013 album 3 Pears. I’m looking forward to hearing it.
  • Chris Stapleton will finally be releasing his debut album this year. It’s called Traveller and will come out on May 5. Fans have been waiting for years to hear the well-known songwriters’ first album. I could definitely see it being a dark horse candidate for album of the year.

Throwback Thursday Song

 

The Highwaymen – “Highwayman.” The Highwaymen was the greatest assembling of country music under one group ever. We will probably never have a country group with so much talent ever again. I only wish we could have heard more music from The Highwaymen. I would love to see a group of country artists try to form another supergroup. The possibilities with this are endless.

My Non-Country Thought of the Week

This past week the Super Bowl took place and one of the most talked about aspects every year with this game is the halftime performance. This year the main performer was Katy Perry, who was also joined by Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott. I thought it was an entertaining performance. I saw a lot of people though complain about it being a terrible performance music wise. Well here’s my rebuttal to that: What were you expecting? Katy Perry isn’t known for her great vocals. She’s an entertainer first and a musician second. I mean I can see if you expect this with past performers like The Who and the Rolling Stones. But with Katy Perry? How can you be so naive? This was all about flash, not substance. Adjust your Super Bowl halftime performance expectations based on the performer each year.

Tweet of the Week

Rita Ballou of Rawhide & Velvet is one of my favorite country follows on Twitter. And here she speaks the truth about certain country outlets I mentioned above just now covering Mr. Simpson.

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Face Palm

Aldean Face Palm

This is a review left under Jason Aldean’s Old Boots, New Dirt album. I don’t even know what is trying to be conveyed here.

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments! 

Photo Credit: sturgillsimpson.com