Back in 2014 the debut album by Sturgill Simpson took the alt-country world by storm with not only its unusual title Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, but with the unusual mix of psychedelia and country. We thought highly of the record to declare it a Country Essential, and we called it one of the best albums of the decade. We stand by that assessment, but we now have a new level of appreciation for this multi-talented artist, with his latest release Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1. It is an acoustic bluegrass spectacular.
Turns out that Sturgill has been a bluegrass fan since his early days in Kentucky when his grandpa told him that once he got that mountain music in his head he would never be able to get it out. Despite Sturgill’s incursion into alt-country and Metamodern‘s success, and his 2019 rock effort Sound and Fury with the compelling track “Remember to Breathe”, his mind kept returning to a simpler time. Here’s what he had to say about the making of Cuttin’ Grass:
“I had it in my mind for a long time that someday I want to cut as many of these songs as possible in this fashion, just organic and stripped down to the raw bones of the composition. If you can’t sit down and play a song like that, it’s probably a pretty shitty song.”
Collaborating with his longtime engineer David Ferguson, he assembled some of his favorite Nashville musicians and backup singers and booked some time at the Butcher Shoppe recording studio. Three days later they’d finished up the 20 songs that appear on this album. The performances are intractably spontaneous and joyful, as though this group had been playing together for years. The approach is bluegrass traditional, cohesively bound by fiddle, banjo, guitar and high lonesome vocals. There’s not a psychedelic note or reference on the album. Sturgill’s vocals are a bluegrass wonder, more reminiscent of The Louvin Brothers than the the oft-referenced Waylon Jennings. Just as it should be, considering Sturgill’s reverence for the genre and his desire to make an authentic record that harkens back to the music he has always loved.
“The bluegrass I love is from post-World War II up to the mid-‘70s. All of it, from the classic styles to the Ozark style, and especially some of the folk-tinged, almost mystical sounds that came out of California in the late ’60s.”
“What you play off the floor is what it’s going to be—we’re not punching in solos or overdubbing anything, it’s just going to be totally raw and live.” Due to modern recording technology and the endless choices it brings, even modern bluegrass recordings have suffered from the soul-sucking pursuit of perfection. Merle Haggard once told me that “perfect is about the most boring thing on Earth.” When it comes to music, he was dead on. As a result it was the fastest recording I’ve ever made.”
Key tracks: “All The Pretty Colors”, “The Long White Line”, and the superb acoustic treatment of “Turtles All The Way Down” that almost makes one forget the original. Additional standouts are the double-time, unleashed fiddle, banjo and guitar breaks on “Railroad of Sin.” That unforgettable track is followed by “Sitting Here Without You”, a high speed lament that might break your heart if your foot wasn’t tappin’ out the relentless beat so hard.
Virtuoso playing. Exuberant singing in the traditional bluegrass manner. Highly recommended for the sheer joy of it.
Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1, The Butcher Shoppe Sessions Players
‣ Vocals, Rhythm Guitar: Sturgill Simpson
‣ Mandolin, Vocals: Sierra Hull
‣ Bass: Mike Bub
‣ Fiddle, Vocals: Stuart Duncan
‣ Banjo, Vocals: Scott Vestal
‣ Rhythm Guitar, Lead Guitar, Vocals: Tim O’Brien
‣ Rhythm Guitar, Lead Guitar, Vocals: Mark Howard
‣ Percussion, Vocals: Miles Miller
Brian Miller is the Publisher and Editor of Vivascene. A former record store owner, business executive and business writer, he is devoted to great music, classical guitar, vinyl records and high end audio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org