Album Review – Sturgill Simpson’s ‘The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’

No matter what happens subsequently, Sturgill Simpson has left such an indelible mark on the legacy of country music, and music at large with his five album contribution over the last eight years (along with two bluegrass side projects), you can’t help but feel the need to tip you hat, to slow clap, to show some sort of appreciation and gratitude as he delivers what he’s proclaimed is his final album as a solo artist.

An innovator, at times a traditionalist, and at others an iconoclast, Stugill Simpson has stirred emotions, broke down barriers, and inspired peers and understudies. He’s also become quite polarizing, to where no matter what he releases, strong opinions rise to the surface even before a peep of music is heard. Don’t worry if you’re a Sturgill Simpson fan though. As we always had a sense as he talked about his “five album plan,” it isn’t bulletproof. Sturgill has made inferences that he’ll start a band next. So it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last from him.

As we have come to expect from Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is a conceptualized song cycle as opposed to just a collection of random tracks, with the hope that these expressions lend to something greater than the sum of their individual parts, and result in a more immersive experience for the listener. Though the album is titled after Simpson’s grandparents, it’s not really about them at all. It’s set in Appalachia 100 years before their birth, and unfolds as a story of love and revenge involving fictional characters—basically a Western, but with the wrinkle of being set in the eastern United States instead.

Dood is a half breed whose father was a mountain man and mother was Shawnee. Juanita is the apple of Dood’s eye. Two other characters that appear are Dood’s trusty steed Shamrock, and loyal dog Sam. Sham and Sam, as they’re affectionately referred to.

Though Sturgill says he wrote the album in a matter of days, he did do his due diligence to make sure no anachronistic inconsistencies sneaked in, referring to rife brands relevant to the time, and conferring other specific details that bring the setting and characters to life. Sturgill’s acting efforts in the upcoming Martin Scorsese movie Killers of the Flower Moon portraying infamous rodeo champion and bootlegger Henry Grammer apparently helped Simpson sync himself with the Dood character, and he envisioned the plot for the story while driving from Nashville to Oklahoma where the movie was shot.

To help bring the story to life, Sturgill enlisted the same Hillbilly Avengers crew that recorded his last bluegrass record Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions—meaning Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, and the rest, and recorded it in the same space—the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, made infamous by “Cowboy” Jack Clement himself. Willie Nelson also appears on guitar via a track beamed across the continent to the Cowboy Arms studio. According to Sturgill, he started writing the album on a Sunday, and it was recorded and finished completely by the end of that same week.

Taking a primitive approach to the music, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita isn’t exactly bluegrass, but the kind of primitive early country and Appalachian folk that would go on to influence country and bluegrass in future generations. Sturgill Simpson’s voice takes on a decidedly deeper timbre in this work, even before he adopts and even more deep affectation when he sings about Dood’s trusty steed on the song “Shamrock.”

Crackling campfire sounds, gunshots, galloping horses, frogs and cricket sounds, and percussive elements are brought to the recording to give it more of a cinematic feel. Similar to other concept records, many of the album’s tracks are best utilized for moving the narrative along within the album cycle as opposed to standalone singles. But when an a capella moment is found paying tribute to Dood’s hound dog “Sam,” it makes for a great autonomous moment too, even if it only lasts for just over a minute.

And though it would be easy to show undue favoritism to the track where the warm and familiar tones of Willie Nelson’s guitar Trigger appear, the song “Juanita” really is the moment where music, story, and Sturgill’s emotive vocals that feature an impressive range make for arguably the best individual takeaway from this particular song cycle.

The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is a fine little record, and makes a quality edition to the Sturgill Simpson discography. Regarding the tracks and the vision Sturgill brought to the project, it’s hard to second guess any of the decisions, or the results. Yet for a record that just a few months ago Sturgill told us he wanted to take his “sweet-ass time on … because I’m pretty sure I’m about to make my opus and then bow out and vaporize like Houdini,” The Ballad of Dood and Juanita feels just a little rushed, and ultimately, lacking.

Despite the album containing 10 tracks, it clocks in near 28 minutes total, which has resulted in some criticism, including from core Sturgill Simpson fans. But as your wife or girlfriend will tell you, it’s not just the length, but what you do with it. With a prologue and an epilogue, not a lot of variety or imagination in the instrumentation, or tracks that work outside the song cycle—and frankly, a plot that could have benefited from significantly more fleshing out (most of the tracks are simply songs about the individual characters)—The Ballad of Dood and Juanita just feels a little light on material.

We all tend to overvalue concept records. Music critics do this especially. But when Willie Nelson delivered Red Headed Stranger, or even Phases and Stages before it, or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Will The Circle Be Unbroken, or Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell, or Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, they were doing something nobody had really done in country music before.

But The Ballad of Dood and Juanita has been done before, and quite frequently. If we’re being honest, the entire record is like a trope, down to the vintage story, and even the sound effects. For years folks have been trying to emulate what Willie did with Red Headed Stranger, with varying degrees of success. It’s a trope because when done well, it works. But at this point, doing your version of Red Headed Stranger is a paint-by-the-numbers enterprise.

The Ballad of Dood and Juanita feels like an album Sturgill Simpson recorded to get his promised fifth and final record off the docket and move on to something he’s more passionate about. The Cuttin’ Grass volumes feel more passionate than this project does, even if they included mostly previously-released material. If fact, this album feels more like a continuation of those albums as opposed to a wholly original effort. Did they even strike the mic stands at the Cowboy Arms studio between recording Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 and this? Or did they just leave them up to save time? This is the record that feels like the side project that shouldn’t count toward the five album plan. And if it was a side project, you’d be elated to receive it. As the culmination of Sturgill Simpson’s music career, it feels a bit deflating.

When we saw the title of this record, it just seemed like something Sturgill Simpson would put all of his soul into, and result in perhaps his most personal work to date, taking the personal history he’s sown into his music through his love of his papaw Dood who he wrote the song “Hero” for, and who appears at the beginning of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music introducing the album, and bring Sturgill Simpson back to High Top Mountain cemetery in Kentucky where his ancestors are buried, and what inspired the name of his first record, completing his career like a perfect circle.

But most anyone could have written and recorded The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, and basically, some already have, only better. Mamma Coal (a.k.a. Carra Stasney) did a great 15-song cycle in 2016 called The Raven Haired Vixen. Slackeye Slim won the Saving Country Music Album of the Year in 2011 for El Santo Grial… These took the Red Headed Stranger concept, and made them their own. And yes, there is a greater level of expectation placed on the shoulders of Sturgill Simpson because of who he is, and what he’s accomplished. He’s earned it.

Again, it’s not that The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is in any way a bad record. For what it is, it’s actually really cool. This is one of those reviews rife to be misunderstood because you have a lot of qualifying points to make about an otherwise quality record. The concern is more about what it could have been than what it is. From the perspective of this objective and informed music critic, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita was probably the 3rd or 4th best record to be released on the busy August 20th release date alone, even though it got the lion’s share of the attention, because it was Sturgill.

Years from now, when listeners sift through the discography of Sturgill Simpson hoping to discover gold just like we all do with the records of the older country greats who passed on before us, they will find The Ballad of Dood and Juanita and regard it as a fine edition to the Sturgill Simpson legacy. But it won’t be considered his Red Headed Stranger. That distinction can only go to an album that is also groundbreaking, original, and strikingly influential. And for Sturgill Simpson, that remains Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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