For all the comparisons he gets to the Outlaws of Country Music of old, it’s worth remembering that Waylon, Willie, Merle, Johnny, and Kris all did their best work inside the confines of the major label country machinery. Willie had to leave RCA for Columbia to make his defining music; Waylon was able to stay put and make his masterpieces under Chet Atkins. Johnny was on Columbia — which had Frank Sinatra for god’s sake — Merle was on Capitol, and Kris was on Monument, which was basically a subsidiary of CBS.
These facts don’t diminish the groundbreaking work these artists made; in some ways it’s a tribute to their greatness that they could brandish their Outlaw image that was calling from inside the house. But it’s important to remember this context when discussing Sturgill Simpson, often considered the spiritual torchbearer for Outlaw Country, who recently left his two-album deal with a major label to make this, Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1, a traditional bluegrass reinterpretation of 20 of his previous songs. What did Sturgill do in the confines of a major label? First, he made a radical song cycle that was a letter to his son in the form of a concept album that served as a metaphorical sailor’s guide to earth (which was also the album’s title). It was a runaway hit, one of the biggest selling (on vinyl, at least) records of 2016, a towering achievement that won the Best Country Album of the Year at the Grammys, and was even nominated for Album of the Year. How did he follow that up? He spent three years making a paranoid, tightly wound, and fucking awesome rock album that felt like ZZ Top strapping into the Matrix. It was called Sound & Fury, and it came with an expensive (according to Sturgill) anime movie, and was as much of a stylistic shift from his previous album as you can even possibly imagine. In other words: this was a true Outlaw, doing true Outlaw shit.
But to hear Sturgill tell it, the process of writing and releasing Sound & Fury — it was recorded in 2017, when he was burned out and convinced he was going to quit music, and he spent years fighting his label for the budget to make the accompanying film — extracted a blood toll from him, and he was convinced he was never going to make music for a major label ever again. Too iconoclastic for the majors, he’s back in control of how his music is promoted, back with Thirty Tigers, the label he was on pre-majors. And his first album back on his own is its own type of left-turn, in the same way that Sound & Fury ducked when you thought it might dodge: It’s an album of beautifully arranged traditional bluegrass, the same Sturgill made in the group Sunday Valley before he went solo for High Top Mountain, made with bluegrass pros. But instead of new songs, Vol. 1 looks backwards, through Simpson’s past, pulling its 20 songs from 4 distinct phases of his career; Sunday Valley (three songs), his first solo album High Top Mountain (seven songs), the follow up Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (eight songs), and finally, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (two songs). In that way, it serves as a gauntlet drop: If this is what you wanted Sturgill Simpson to be making all along, fine. Here it is, an album that re-envisions these songs — some of which bended the conception of “country” music — as traditional songs that would fit on set lists between “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Can’t You Hear Me Calling.” It’s the sound of an artist letting go, and getting back to what he loved before he was boxed in by a major label deal that felt to him like an albatross. It’s tremendous.
The tracklist is in alphabetical order by song, but that order allows Cuttin’ Grass to launch with “All Around You,” one of Simpson’s most purely beautiful songs ever, from Sailor’s Guide, which here is rendered even more tender and stunning thanks to a fiddle solo, and its brittle mandolin lines. “Breakers Roar” from Sailor’s Guide is similarly rendered, a devastating song in its original form, made somehow more powerful with its arrangements stripped back to the bluegrass form.
But not every song is rendered into a beautiful bluegrass ballad; the songs that ass-kick in their original form are recast as barnyard boomers. “Life Ain’t Fair And The World Is Mean” is sly, and rollicking here, and “Railroad of Sin” sounds itself like a runaway train car here, barely on the tracks, sounding so much like a train car driven by Wile E. Coyote. “Long White Line” becomes a jocular stomper, a song about the road played like it’s happening around a fire somewhere in the American southwest.
In whole, Cuttin’ Grass feels like a welcome return, an album where Sturgill has stopped being beaten down by label drama, and road weariness, to cut loose in the studio and make music exactly how he wanted. He’s long carried a lot weight — the expectations of being the new “King of Outlaw Country,” of fans who expect him to make Metamodern Sounds over and over, of labels who apparently think he’s the next Chris Stapleton — and this album, for the third album in a row, finds him shrugging off all expectation, following his own muse. That Sturgill Simpson can walk the tightrope that his career has come and still surprise — and surprise via a traditional bluegrass album that no one would have expected — does more to make him the spiritual kin of Willie and Waylon. You literally can’t tell what he’ll do next; the only guarantee is that it’ll be thrilling.
You can get the VMP exclusive edition of this album--with alternate album art--right here.