Staying within an acoustic setting, Sturgill Simpson nods to his forebears with a grand storytelling album.
No matter what you think of Sturgill Simpson, you have to admit that he’s a maverick who continually surprises. ‘High Top Mountain’ was his foot in the door, allowing him to release the groundbreaking ‘Metamodern Sounds In Country Music’. ‘A Sailor’s Guide To Earth’ was even more off-kilter but was a Grammy Winner – Simpson was taking on Nashville in a slugfest and winning every round so far. ‘Sound & Fury’ might have been a step too far (it still baffles several folk this reviewer knows) but then Simpson kind of cartwheeled and released two bluegrass albums which revisited songs from his previous albums – both of them impressive.
‘The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita’ continues in the acoustic bluegrass vein of the last two albums but it’s, whisper it, a concept album. Or a story album, or an album in which all the songs are connected. Have it your way. Most folk, when concept albums are mentioned will think of prog rock and triple album releases, accompanied by extravagant stage shows featuring unicorns ice skating. However, country music has a fine history of concept (or themed) albums going all the way back to Hank Williams’ Luke The Drifter while Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins visited the wild west on several occasions. The pinnacle was probably Willie Nelson’s 1975 album, ‘The Red Headed Stranger’, a starkly beautiful collection which told the tale of a fugitive on the run. It’s an album which is perhaps the starting point for Simpson’s album and it’s of note that Nelson and his trusty guitar, Trigger, make an appearance here alongside most of the musicians who appeared on the ‘Cuttin’ Grass’ albums.
Simpson has mentioned Dood before in a couple of songs. Lawrence Grey Fraley, otherwise known as Dood, was his grandfather and Simpson credits him with imbuing in him a love of country music. Here, Simpson transports his hard working war veteran “paw-paw” back to the 19th Century, situating him as a battle-hardened veteran of the civil war who is tamed by his love, Juanita (coincidentally the name of Simpson’s grandmother). Their idyll is shattered when Dood is shot and Juanita kidnapped, setting the scene for his bloody revenge.
So far so Pekinpah. The mood is set in a ‘Prologue’, with martial singing by soldiers returning from the war accompanied by gunfire and artillery blasts. A fiddle then kicks in as Simpson relates the legend of ‘Ol’ Dood’, attributing him with an almost mythical prowess, a nod to heroes like Davey Crockett. ‘One In The Saddle, One In The Ground’ relates the deadly deed over a mournful scraped fiddle and from there on we find Dood on the trail on his trusty steed ‘Shamrock’ who gets a song to himself in the vein of ‘Tennessee Stud’, which ends with a spectacular bluegrass workout. However, it’s a weary trail as evidenced on the resigned campfire sound of ‘Played Out’ and then tragedy strikes again on what is perhaps the most calamitous event which can befall a cowboy, his dog dies, an event noted in the vocal harmonies of the short song, ‘Sam’.
There’s redemption of course. ‘Juanita’ is a sweet cantina styled border ballad (with Nelson weighing in remotely, playing his beloved guitar) as our hero is reunited with his love and it’s followed by the incredibly lively strains of ‘Go In Peace’, the string band here flailing away and whipping up a storm. There’s a brief Greek chorus in an ‘Epilogue’ which revisits the introduction and sums up briefly all which has gone before and sets the scene for the final song, ‘Ol’ Dood (Part II)’. It’s the showdown, cinematic and climatic, and the band play their pants off quite brilliantly. The song ends with mournful fiddle and mouth harp over an ambient buzz of swampland critters.
‘The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita’ is a short album, around 29 minutes, but Simpson delivers a powerful story in a very powerful fashion in that short time. It allows him to demonstrate that he is quite masterful in an acoustic setting with the album well set to be considered as equal to many of its predecessors. It also shows that he is unafraid to follow his muse, no matter where it takes him.