Album Review – Sturgill Simpson’s “Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1”

Frank Zappa used to say that he was a symphonic composer stuck in a rock ‘n roll band—a musical refugee due the restrictive environment imposed by popular music in his time that rendered classical music outmoded and inconsequential. For Sturgill Simpson, the same could be said, only that he’s a bonafide Kentucky-born a bluegrass picker who’s been stuck in country rock bands his whole career, and looking for the right opportunity to break out. Well now he’s found it.

Beginning with Sturgill’s earliest recordings in his original band Sunday Valley, the trained ear could discern that what Sturgill was picking and singing was much more indicative of bluegrass than standard issue country, even if it was electric in nature. And we’re not just talking about Sunday Valley’s 2011 album To The Wind and On To Heaven that’s been frustratingly out-of-print for years and supplies a number of tracks on this album (“All The Pretty Colors,” “I Don’t Mind,” “I Wonder,” “Sometimes Wine”). A couple of the songs (“Sometimes Wine” and “I Wonder”) appeared on the even rarer Sunday Valley EP from 2004.

Go ahead, listen to the original versions of those songs, or “Old King Coal,” “A Little Light,” and “Railroad of Sin,” and try convincing yourself or others this isn’t bluegrass in country duds. Sure, maybe there aren’t a lot of traditional bluegrass songs that talk about “reptile aliens made of light,” but add the trippy side of newgrass to the mix, and you have that covered too.

Yet who would pay attention to the poor son of a coal miner’s daughter fresh out of the Navy trying to turn the tables on the powers that be in country music to the tune of winning a Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and nominated for all-genre Album of the Year if he had started off as just another soul trying to make it in bluegrass? And how would that same guy convince some of the top bluegrass pickers of our generation to collaborate him on his original material? Sturgill Simpson first had to become Sturgill Simpson to be able to make this album, and to have anyone pay attention to it, and for it to mean anything.

There have always been two Sturgill Simpsons. There’s the humble kid from Kentucky, hyper aware of his own ego and his place in the world, unmotivated by fame or money, who just wants to provide for his family and be left alone. Then there’s the manic Sturgill, palpably angry about what he sees happening in the music world and beyond, never feeling he’s received his proper due, and motivated to upend the system and impose his will upon it, for better or worse. The tug and pull between those two people is where the music comes from, and whatever mood he’s in dictates how the music takes shape, either angry (Sound & Fury), or grateful and content (Cuttin’ Grass).

The result of a dare Sturgill took out against his fans to raise money for some worthy causes, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 is Sturgill Simpson reprising some of his most well-known tracks in bluegrass form with an impressive list of collaborators that includes fiddler Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull on mandolin and backing vocals, banjo player Scott Vestal, Tim O’Brien and Mark Howard on guitar, and Mike Bub on bass. Sturgill’s drummer Miles Miller was also part of the sessions that were produced by David “Ferg” Ferguson at The Butcher Shoppe in Nashville.

With little room for noodling or improvisation, and not a ton of conversation or rehearsal before heading into the studio, Cuttin’ Grass is still finely crafted and deftly executed by all involved, offering good to excellent bluegrass renditions of Sturgill Simpson songs that aren’t burdened by the often awkward experience of hearing the new version of an old song since the approach here is so different. Instead, the record is more fulfilling to the imagination by answering the question that commonly comes with Sturgill’s music, “I wonder what a bluegrass version of this song would sound like?” while meeting expectations.

Fans of earlier Sturgill as opposed to later Sturgill will have most of their hopes fulfilled by the effort, seeing how none of Sound & Fury‘s tracks made it on the record, and only a few from A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Instead you get a heavy dose of High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds, including the earlier lyrical version of the song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” that mentions the CMAs (and now his three kids), as opposed to the one that made the album.

Harmony vocals weren’t overlooked in the enterprise either, and along with Stuart Duncan’s fiddle work, Sierra Hull really shines throughout, including offering sweet female harmonies in a number of spots. After the 20 songs, you do wish perhaps the players had been allowed to stretch their legs a bit more, including, if not especially, Sturgill himself. The fade out on the song “Voices” feels like it could have gone on a little longer to give the respective players a chance to shine. But there’s certainly something to be said about keeping things short and sweet as is done throughout this record.

Any gripes about Cuttin’ Grass would primarily center around post production stuff, like choosing to sequence the tracks in alphabetical order as opposed to how best the songs might fit with each other. As such a fan of the song sequence and conceptualized works, this decision was somewhat surprising from Sturgill. Perhaps including a new song or two could have also have made the album just that much more original, and enticing.

But we can’t overlook what Cuttin’ Grass ultimately is, which is an acoustic, COVID-19-era work of previously-released material like we’ve received quite a few of over the last many months. The difference here is who is releasing it, and the scope and approach. And most certainly, it holds much more value than your average living room recordings. Comparing it to Sturgill’s understudy Tyler Childers and his Long Violent History for example, this is probably the more lasting effort.

Eventually, after years of slaving away in rock bands, helping to popularize fusion jazz, and influencing music on a much grander scale, Frank Zappa finally did earn the opportunity to conduct symphonies, and received a level of respect from that genteel side of the music world regularly withheld from rock stars. Similarly, Sturgill Simpson proves his place as the frontman of an ambitiously populated bluegrass band on Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1, with the only lingering question being when we can expect Vol. 2, or a similar work from Sturgill, only comprising original songs. But as he proves here, this is his place, and always has been.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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