Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) (High Top Mountain Records/Cooking Vinyl)
Well, hello happy Sturgill!
You didn’t need a degree in psychology, or have had proximity to him, to figure that in recent years Sturgill Simpson had been getting angrier and angrier. First lyrically, then publicly (yes, that was him essentially protesting outside the country music awards) and, just to emphasise the point on his previous album, musically.
That guitar-pumping, drum-thumping record wasn’t called Sound & Fury for nothing.
What was he angry about? How much time you got? The pettiness of the music industry, the small minds of the radio industry, the racism and sexism of society, the feebleness in styles and influences “appropriate” for a man his age, the class divide in America, a world making parenting hellish, and did I mention the pettiness, the outright timidity, of the music industry?
It boiled up, and over, in Sound & Fury, an electro-rock-dancelfoor version of something that was many things but not really country, dotted with humour – you don’t throw in references to ZZ Top out of earnestness! – but dominated by, well, fury.
Oh yes, I forgot: earlier this year Simpson contracted covid-19.
The man presumably had had enough of the grim and gloom, and this album is him saying not just “I don’t want to be angry all the time”, but “you are allowed to have fun listening to me”.
Unleashed Beyonce-style - no warning and only the fact it turned up on streaming services a clue for most people that something had happened - Cuttin’ Grass is Simpson, a bunch of quality pickers, and his back catalogue, thrown together to make a bluegrass record. A double album bluegrass record too, with the likes of Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Miles Miller and Tim O’Brien on board.
And you know what? It’s good.
It feels loose enough to be easy but not so loose that you wonder if they were upright. It has the lightness of a get-together rather than a recording session. And it does it all without pushing the “if you strip a song back it is more authentic and aren’t we so, like, real man” vibe. The fiddle and banjo can fly, the upright bass dances in simple but perfectly judged steps and the mandolin is up on its toes and kicking up dust.
All of which is reflected in his comfortable singing that frees him to just be, to almost show a smile in that voice, and to let his influences show a little more too. See if you can pick them (it’s easy, don’t worry).
There’s nothing from Sound & Fury, understandably probably, but his three albums prior to that are well represented. All The Pretty Colors swings your around the dirt floor and Breakers Roar is a more relaxed dance, Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean seduces you from cynicism with its spritely picking and the boys central backing vocals, and Old King Coal leans back into its rough rockin’ chair.
Even older songs like I Wonder (a post-heartbreak drinking yourself sad song) and I Don’t Mind (post-breakup again but more sanguine, even clear-headed) slip in easily. The man can write a song.
Interestingly, the running order puts a lot of more general topic (for which you can read, love-based) songs upfront, as if to emphasise the shift from the bad moods, and the subjects which prompted them. However, he doesn’t avoid the kick, some of his best acerbic lines even clearer in the mix as the album moves into its second half.
By the way, that “second half” begins about 25-30 minutes in as these 20 songs are done, dusted and already having a drink before you even see 60 minutes on the horizon. It’s a hit-and-run-and-hit-again system. And it works a treat.
Someone’s having fun alright.