Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood and Juanita Music Album Reviews

Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood and Juanita Music Album Reviews
Following two volumes of roots renditions of his own songs, the shapeshifting country musician returns with a bluegrass concept album about love among the legends of the Kentucky frontier.

Sturgill Simpson does not do half measures. Almost a decade ago, following vagabond stints in the Navy, a railroad yard, and a Seattle IHOP, the Kentucky songwriter circumvented country music convention with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the kind of once-in-a-long-while reappraisal of the genre’s core values that only a lifetime outsider might dare make. Embracing new wave and honky-tonk, trading Jesus for DMT, Simpson’s masterpiece drew upon the maverick spirit of country’s bygone visionaries in order to give a complacent genre something beyond pickup trucks and watery domestics. It was vivid and urgent, an inspiring revelation. He chased its success with an organ-funked instruction manual for life and a grungy kiss-off to the music industry, so relentless it registered as the mannered Southern cousin of Eminem’s Kamikaze.

Then, amid COVID-19 lockdowns last year, Simpson again pivoted, recruiting a crackerjack, intergenerational crew of bluegrass musicians like Sierra Hull and Tim O’Brien to quickly record twin volumes of traditional renditions of his own songs. A quiet act of confident defiance, Cuttin’ Grass suggested that traditionalism to evolve could also be a form of subversion. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, a bluegrass concept album recorded with the stunning group he has dubbed the Hillbilly Avengers, is an even more audacious salvo in Simpson’s back-to-the-roots campaign. By turns romantic, playful, sympathetic, and solemn, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is a compelling update on American frontier mythmaking, delivered by a band good enough to push lovingly against genre conventions.

The premise of Dood and Juanita is a stock tale of hardscrabble settlers, as familiar as any classic Western. A half-Shawnee toughie, Dood is a wild child of Eastern Kentucky who delights in domesticity after meeting Juanita, “a good woman” who “calmed down the rage.” When she is abducted by the outlaw Seamus McClure, Dood (already shot by the hooligan) saddles up his horse and pursues Juanita, sights set on mortal vengeance. During the quest, his towering and steadfast horse, Shamrock, gets tired, while his trusty hound, Sam, dies. Saved by a band of Cherokees, Dood finally finds Juanita, gets her home, and kills McClure with a single shot from his Martin Meylin rifle, a gun so tied to the United States’ westward advance that Daniel Boone helped make it famous. Dood and Juanita is unequal parts love story, history lesson, and action-adventure tale, a cross as classic as the sounds around it.

Dood and Juanita works so well because Simpson sounds comfortable within this form and just beyond it. He harmonizes tenderly with his band above Stuart Duncan’s sweet fiddle line during “One in the Saddle, One on the Ground,” an ode to both horse and hound. “Played Out” is an exceptional bluegrass ballad about bearing impossible burdens. And Simpson reaches bluegrass’ nasal apogee during “Go in Peace,” his voice expressing the same anxiety as Scott Vestal’s restless banjo. For Simpson, this music is a return to terra firma, to land he knows innately.

Listen, though, for the tiny surprises—the wailing harmonica and bounding jaw harp during “Go in Peace,” the field recordings during “Played Out,” the background bells and absurdist harmonies of “Ol’ Dood (Part I).” They’re minutiae, sure, but they collectively suggest Simpson isn’t content just to pick and grin. The entire record, after all, hinges on an exquisite Latin love song, complete with a discursive solo by Willie Nelson. It’s the kind of modern bluegrass fantasy Simpson has not only the temerity to try but also the skills to accomplish.

Though the folk tale and the sound may seem antiquated, Simpson’s subtle choices of setting and circumstance resonate right now. Juanita goes missing in 1862 in Eastern Kentucky, then a coveted piece of Civil War real estate. Despite being a master of the state’s legendary long rifle, Dood, 33, has already walked away from the then-new conflict to settle at home with Juanita. He’s rejected the coal industry’s self-perpetuating system of labor penury for a quiet life of homesteader self-reliance, too. From the actual battle lines of our current politics to a new generation of coal strikes, these details comport with current headlines with an unsettling clarity. More important, these wrinkles reflect the actual depth and contradictions inherent in rural life, perennially reduced to a string of assumptive stereotypes. Named for Simpson’s late grandfather, Dood isn’t some ideologue; he’s just a country man looking for a quiet life. Simpson is speaking for his people here, telling the stories of Appalachia without the condescension of, say, J.D. Vance.

Simpson equivocates about the shape of his sounds to come—he told Rolling Stone that life as a bluegrass picker was his bona fide birthright, while he suggested to the BBC he’d essentially play whatever genre paid. Is this the legitimate beginning of his bluegrass career, or just another detour for a songwriter who has mapped his career with them? The Ballad of Dood and Juanita makes that question especially tantalizing, since Simpson seems hellbent on bending the ideas of whatever genre he momentarily chooses, no matter how cloistered it seems. Bluegrass has long benefited from a lineage of weirdo rebels. Simpson fits right in, even if he might one day slip right out.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood and Juanita Music Album Reviews Sturgill Simpson - The Ballad of Dood and Juanita Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on August 26, 2021 Rating: 5


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