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Sturgill Simpson, country music's outlaw, springs another surprise

Sturgill Simpson has always defied genres. His new album is a bluegrass re-imagining of his own old songs

On his latest album, Sturgill Simpson has re-imagined songs from his back catalogue in classic bluegrass style

Every time Sturgill Simpson releases a new album, he confounds his listeners. It has become a pattern. A familiar yet delightful pattern. A little over a year ago, the 42-year-old Kentucky-born musician released Sound & Fury, an album that flirts with 1970s-era progressive, psychedelic rock; with synth-fuelled danceable funky tunes; and with unbridled heavy rock that sometimes borders on metal. Till then, Simpson was considered primarily a country musician. A rebellious one but still, a country musician.

His first two albums were clearly in that genre. The first, High Top Mountain (released in 2013), was like a revival of classic country music with all the vibe of that genre’s long-gone golden era. He followed it up the very next year with Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, which stuck musically to the genre but had lyrics on subjects that were quite uncommon to it, like psychedelia, and deep introspection. It earned him the label of being an “outlaw country musician”. But not for long. His third release, in 2016, a concept album titled A Sailor’s Guide To Earth and dedicated to his then-infant son, was a musical extravaganza—strings and horns and an orchestra—layered with lyrics that were about life, growing up, and society’s divisiveness.

That album shot up on the charts and won him a Grammy. And then, of course, he released Sound & Fury, the throwback to a different era of heavy rock, which may have given listeners the impression that Simpson was now taking a sharp turn away from the country music genre, into more rock music territory. Well, that hasn’t happened. In mid-October, Simpson released his fifth album. Titled Cuttin’ Grass—Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions), the new album is another big surprise from the incorrigibly unclassifiable musician.

On Cuttin’ Grass, Simpson has again done the unexpected. He has taken 20 songs from his back catalogue—from albums such as Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and A Sailor’s Guide—and re-imagined them in classic bluegrass style. The songs are stripped-down, slow-paced versions of his originals, rendered in a form that pays tribute to the traditions of bluegrass music and to bluegrass greats such as Bill Monroe and Del McCoury. There are banjos, mandolins and fiddles as Simpson re-creates what seems like a past era, redolent of an old-time atmosphere.

It is a new experience to be able to listen to songs you have heard in very different ways before. For instance, Metamodern’s opening song, Turtles All The Way Down, a song about God but also about psychedelics and drugs and the gateway of the mind, gets traditional bluegrass treatment that not only makes it sound different but even seems to call for a different interpretation that is less inclined to psychedelia and more towards something spiritual.

The story behind Cuttin’ Grass is as fascinating as the album. Early this year, Simpson was struck by a vicious case of covid-19. He even had problems getting the kind of hospital care he might have needed. While he was recovering from the virus, he decided to use social media and raise funds from fans for a couple of charities that he supports. It was a kind of dare: He invited his fans to donate and told them that if the donations reached a certain level or surpassed it, he would come out with a new album. Fans responded, and the bluegrass project was born.

Bluegrass, a kind of traditional American roots music with English, Scottish and Irish roots, was a genre that Simpson’s grandfather dabbled in. He had heard it a lot as a child but never really strayed into the genre as a musician. Till now. Simpson collaborated with a string of bluegrass musicians, including fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Sierra Hull, banjo player Scott Vestal, guitarists Tim O’Brien and Mark Howard, and bassist Mike Bub. The album was recorded quickly, with minimal rehearsal and practice sessions.

The result is a perfect set of songs, re-created in bluegrass form, but with Simpson’s now-famous baritone vocals lending a degree of familiarity to fans who know his catalogue well. There are quirks, too. For instance, instead of sequencing the songs in a way that could make for a theme or a good flow of tunes, Simpson has chosen to sequence them alphabetically. That can sometimes lead to aural dissonance because some songs don’t fit next to each other. In that sense, Simpson, whose past albums have a conceptual feel to them (songs are often sequenced to a theme), has departed from normal practice on Cuttin’ Grass.

The other complaint that fans could have is the lack of new songs. All 20 songs on the album are old ones, albeit in new avatars, but the novelty of listening to them in re-created forms can wear off. But, then again, Cuttin’ Grass was a sort of quickie born out of a fund-raising challenge.

The thing is, however, that Cuttin’ Grass (the full title says it’s Vol.1, so a sequel cannot be ruled out) proves once again is that Sturgill Simpson, whose career has seen so many generic shifts, continues to be one of the most unpredictable musicians of our times, always ready to spring surprises that fans and listeners wouldn’t normally expect from him.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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