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In a weird way, Sturgill Simpson might be the only musician who has come out ahead during the pandemic.
This might seem like a perverse argument given that Simpson actually caught Covid-19 in the early stages of the crisis. But consider his state of mind in early 2020, when he spoke openly in an interview with me about his misgivings regarding an upcoming arena tour with Tyler Childers in support of his bridges-burning 2019 rock album, Sound And Fury. The 42-year-old country superstar clearly was uncomfortable with his newly minted status as an arena headliner. He fretted about whether he would be able to connect with fans in the same way in such big rooms. And he also wasn’t keen on revisiting the Sound And Fury material. While he stood behind the album as an artistic statement, Simpson was wary of marinating every night in the anger and confusion that inspired those songs.
“I don’t want to be that guy,” he sighed. “I don’t ever want to be that guy again.”
Suddenly, due to a disaster that’s unprecedented in modern times, he didn’t have to be. After performing just a handful of dates, the tour was canceled, and Simpson was sent back home to his family, precisely where he preferred to be all along. It would be a sin to call this a miracle — again, Simpson had to convalesce for a time after getting sick himself — but these terrible circumstances had an undeniable upside. Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident. Sturgill had this.
Instead of unleashing the molten lava of Sound And Fury on stunned audiences every night, Simpson engaged with fans on Instagram and hit upon an alternate musical path. After Simpson’s fanbase exceeded a donation target for his handpicked charities (the Special Forces Foundation, the Equity Alliance, and MusiCares), he pledged to put out a new album. In June, he assembled some of the finest pickers in Nashville and set about re-recording a batch of his old songs at The Butcher Shoppe, a recording studio operated by engineer David Ferguson that was once a favored laboratory for the late, great singer-songwriter John Prine. The idea was to set up and play the material live in a bluegrass style. In the end, Simpson wound up with two records worth of material and, it appears, a new lease on his creative life.
The first of these records, Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions), was released on Friday and immediately made the opposite impression of Sound And Fury. To be clear, I love Simpson’s disco-metal provocation, both as music and as a defiant eff-you gesture. As is often the case with Sturgill, whose dry acerbic wit doesn’t translate as well in print as it does in person, the album’s loopy sense of humor was lost amid the wildly polarized reactions, which perhaps was inevitable given that he seemed to be intentionally baiting traditionalists with a mix of ZZ Top-style riffage and apocalyptic, anime-inspired iconography. But there’s no question that Sound And Fury arrived with negative mojo baked into the music, so much so that even the man who made it found the record difficult to sit with once he had purged himself of all that bile.
Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1, in contrast, feels like opening the curtains to a dark room and letting boundless sunshine chase away the troubling shadows. This is the most sublime and delightful music he’s yet made on record, and the first album to truly harness the energy and charm he has a performer on stage. While not technically a live LP, Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 has all of the attributes of his concerts — the looseness, the sense of camaraderie, the good vibes — that have often been lacking on his studio albums, which can sound relatively stilted in comparison. Here, he sounds more relaxed than he ever has in a studio environment.
More than that, you can hear Simpson rediscovering his love of music on Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1. (This might also be related to the album coming out on his label, High Top Mountain Records, after strongly voicing his displeasure with his former corporate overlords in our interview back in February.) It’s incredible how much freer and happier he sounds here after the intense exorcisms of the Sound And Fury period. Even his vocals, which sounded like they were coming out of clenched teeth on the 2019 record, now have a warmer, more fluid quality. He is no longer voicing recriminations at unseen, unnamed enemies. He’s simply being, breathing in and out, amid the comfort of friends.
Ahead of the Sound And Fury shows, Simpson doubted that he would ever play those songs again after he fulfilled the tour obligation. True to his word, Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 sticks with material from the three albums that precede it, along with four songs from his pre-fame band, Sunday Valley. But along with being a kind of de-facto greatest hits record, Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 truly does feel like a reimagining of his catalogue, due in large part to the contributions of his incredible backing musicians, which include luminaries like Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, and Stuart Duncan, as well as Simpson’s usual drummer Miles Miller.
Coupled with Ferguson’s calming presence, these musicians provide both expert instrumental backing and easygoing fellowship that bring the best out of Simpson. The result is a record that spotlights Simpson’s strengths as a songwriter like never before, stripping away the sonic cosplay of the albums — the psychedelic cowboy, the swaggering would-be Elvis, the Kyuss-obsessed stoner rocker — to reveal the bedrock lyrical and melodic chops that exist underneath. But while it’s a kick to hear songs such as “Turtles All The Way Down,” “Water In The Well,” “Just Let Go,” and “All Around You” reduced down to their barest essentials, the most revelatory material on Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 might actually date back to the Sunday Valley days, with “I Don’t Mind” and “I Wonder” making an especially strong case for Simpson’s primacy as a songwriter long before he became a neo-outlaw icon.
Speaking of outlaw cred: There is something gleefully perverse — which is to say, deeply Sturgill-esque — about making this album at this moment in time. Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 is exactly the sort of down-home, deeply traditional record that many Simpson fans would have preferred to Sound And Fury, or even A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. But only after the tempest of 2020 did Simpson finally deign to make it. If you take a step back, however, the progression from country hero to hard-rock outsider to bluegrass bliss does have a sense of logic. For an iconoclast like Simpson, who never saw a straight path that seemed enticing, a spot in the morning sunshine could only be earned after a dark night of the soul. If he can get there, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
Cuttin’ Grass — Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions) is out now via High Top Mountain Records. Get it here.