Well ladies and gentlemen, Sturgill Simpson finally found a word to rhyme with “Bronco.”
The first installment of Sturgill Simpson’s foray into re-recording a selection of his old songs in bluegrass form was very well-received by the public, and for sound reasons. The spirited renditions by some of the bluegrass scene’s top pickers with Sturgill leading the way was an enjoyable and uplifting experience, while exposing how most all of Simpson’s material has always been bluegrass songs gussied up in other genre influences to make them appeal to the wide masses. Now that everyone is laser focused on his output, Sturgill can serve these songs up as they were originally envisioned, and hold the audience in rapt attention.
But Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) was still very much a COVID-era enterprise of reprising previously-released songs in acoustic form, which we’ve seen and heard from many, many artists over the last 9 or 10 months of quarantine. It doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable work. But with little extended improvising from the instrumentalists, sequencing the songs in alphabetical order, and not including any original material, it was more of a, “Hey, I promised y’all a bluegrass record, so here you go!” kind of enterprise than and actual thought-out artistic expression in album form. It also might be a little too long.
Even then, Cuttin Grass Vol. 1 was still pretty damn lit just from a listening standpoint. But all the concerns enumerated with the first volume—however nit picky they may be—are addressed and resolved in the second one. Whether he was listening to his critics, or had similar feelings himself, Sturgill Simpson took this second crack more seriously. The players are allowed to stretch their legs more. The songs are sequenced where they unfold a bit more like a story. And he includes an original song in “Hobo Cartoon,” co-written with Merle Haggard no less, and a song we haven’t heard in studio before with “Tennessee.” And it all comes together to make a much more cohesive and expressive experience.
In this new album, Sturgill Simpson isn’t just fulfilling a promise to fans to cut a bluegrass record, he’s finding and settling into the next phase of his career, which is as a full-blown bluegrass musician. Simpson saved his most personal songs for Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (The Cowboy Arms Sessions), whether it’s the multiple songs from his Grammy-winning 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth that he wrote for his first-born son like “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” “Sea Stories,” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” or the song about his wife “Sarah” which first appeared during Sturgill’s Sunday Valley era, or the song “Hero” about his grandfather that appeared on Sturgill’s first solo record, High Top Mountain.
This gives the moments of Vol. 2 an emotional weight that renders it more reverberative than just a regular reinterpretation of old catalog material. The first eight songs tell a story, and the acoustic nature of the approach allows you to focus more on what the songs say compared to their original recordings. There is also a more compositional element to this second volume, beyond allowing the pickers to noodle a little more. The way some songs start off slow and sparse, and build into something more just makes the approach feel more purposeful.
From tracks 9 to 12, Sturgill takes care of some unfinished business. Along with including a recorded version of the song “Tennessee,” which some hardcore Sturgill fans will recognize from old YouTube clips, Simpson revitalizes the song “You Can Have The Crown,” which he’s been openly hung up on for years, even though it’s a fan favorite. Feeling like it was less than a favorable write, it’s been retired from the Sturgill repertoire for some time. Being willing to re-record the song signals once again that Sturgill has turned a leaf here lately, and is willing to let go of some of his anger and apprehension, and not be so uptight about every little thing. And rhyming “Bronco” with “Mongo” in a reference to the movie Blazing Saddles, and singing about how he’s finally out of his record deal, it gives us a good reasoning behind the new turn of mood and perspective.
“Hobo Cartoon” is also receiving much love, and four years after the passing of Merle Haggard, it’s fun to hear something The Hag had a hand in. The song is probably not anything super special, but like much of Vol. 2, it holds a sentimentality that you can’t help but feel. With Merle being born and raised in a home converted from a literal boxcar and a big fan of the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers over the years, and Sturgill doing his stint working on the railroads in Utah for a while, the song is fitting material for the pair.
Cut at “Cowboy” Jack Clement’s infamous Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville that has survived countless rowdy sessions, the passing of “Cowboy” Jack himself, and a devastating fire a few years ago, it sees the wonder pickers from the first round of bluegrass recordings reprising their roles, now affectionately named the “Hillbilly Avengers”—that being Stuart Duncan, Mike Bub, Sierra Hull, Scott Vestal, Tim O’Brien and Mark Howard. Somehow, they seem to elevate their game on Vol. 2 from the already-outstanding performances on Vol. 1 as well.
Sturgill Simpson made history when he was nominated this year by the Grammy Awards for Best Rock Album (Sound & Fury), after being nominated and winning for Best Country Album (A Sailor’s Guide to Earth)—the first artist to grace both of those categories. Now he’s likely to add a 3rd category in bluegrass next go round for the effort on Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2, while making a mockery of every outlet that has preemptively posted their “Best Country Albums” list for 2020 with cards still to be dealt. With Vol. 2, Sturgill Simpson upped the ante, and though it’s still mostly previously-released material which is an important qualifier, you won’t hear any argument here with someone who regards it as one of the best, or at least one of the most enjoyable records released all year.
Two guns up.
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Physical copies of Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 are now available for pre-order.