As promised, Kentucky country/rock/psychedelic/whatever-he-damn-well-pleases songwriter Sturgill Simpson dropped the first of two Bluegrass albums last night. Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions) reinvents some of his best known and most obscure tunes, turning them into honest-to-god Bluegrass classics.
Simpson dips way into the archives here, not only reworking tracks from his solo records, but also pulling from back in his Sunday Valley days. Folks who followed music in central Kentucky 10-15 years ago will remember Sunday Valley for their barn-burning live shows (RIP The Dame, Cosmic Charlie’s) and rabid fanbase singing every word to “Sometimes Wine” and “I Wonder,” both of which are included in the new collection.
And what a collection it is. Sturgill may be a punk rocker at heart, but his hard-edged vocals and under-appreciated range, so often reminiscent of Waylon Jennings, are perfect for the Bluegrass genre. So he assembled an absolute cheat code of a band, including his trusted right-hand rhythm monster Miles Miller, fiddle legend Stuart Duncan, young mandolin superstar Sierra Hull, and fellow genre-bending banjoist Scott Vestal.
The result is a truly joyful grab bag of songs that will appeal to traditionalists and “newgrass” fans alike. Even some of Simpson’s trippiest (“Turtles All the Way Down”) and most soulful (“All Around You”) tunes sound like they could have been written for Del McCoury. If you watched his special from The Ryman over the summer, you know how seriously he takes Bluegrass music and the influence it had on him growing up in Breathitt and Woodford Counties. That care for the style is apparent in the thoughtful arrangements and picture-perfect production, with each instrumentalist getting his or her time in the spotlight, just like at any good 'Grass show. On Instagram, Sturgill referred to the collection as “the best work and truest representation of myself as an artist that I have ever created.”
Unsurprisingly, Simpson’s early career is featured most prominently in Vol. 1, with 14 of the 20 tracks coming from 2013’s High Top Mountain and 2014’s breakout Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, not to mention the four Sunday Valley tracks. With a second volume on the way, will we hear some more from his Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, or from his rock-n-roll ripper Sound & Fury? If we’ve learned anything from Sturgill’s career to this point, it’s that we can expect anything.
Cuttin’ Grass is available for purchase, and $2 from every copy sold goes to MusiCares and NIVA to help artists and venues who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. As always, BUY RECORDS—DON’T JUST STREAM. Right now you can get a limited-edition Kentucky “Bootleg Blue” vinyl at vinylmeplease.com.