With Sturgill Simpson, it’s always best to walk into a new project with zero expectations for genre or what its content will entail.
And believe it or not, I don’t mean that as a slight. I’ve always described my relationship with Simpson’s music as complicated at best, but I’ve never minded the forays into psychedelia, soul, hard rock, or bluegrass. Still, despite High Top Mountain not even being a decade old yet, that introduction and era itself both feel much older than they really are now, and as he gears up to release what could potentially be his final solo album, I can’t help but think the intended journey didn’t go as planned for him. He was an unlikely success story at a time when country music desperately needed one to snap it out of its artistic malaise, but since then it feels like he’s regretted blowing up as big as he did, in turn taking it out on both the music industry and the fans who consume the art – hence why I stand by my review of 2019’s Sound and Fury.
Still, if those two bluegrass projects from last year provided anything beyond an incredibly fun time, it was a glimpse at a rejuvenated Simpson; one who felt like he loved music again and was making music the way he originally set out to do – for himself. As such, given how he was praising this upcoming project as his magnum opus before bowing out and taking some time off, I couldn’t help but have expectations this time around – expectations for something of a full circle moment for his career. He did, after all, once describe the fifth album in his original plan to deal with absolution and a return to the light, and I don’t think he meant it be as prophetic as it turned out to be.
With that said, this is another case where my complicated relationship with his music comes back into play, because while The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is a fine listen that’s already earned comparisons to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, I can’t help but think this is also his least interesting album to date, and where the comparisons are being made more for the approach rather than the execution.
Don’t ready the pitchforks yet, though, because on some level, this is also Simpson’s most refreshingly straightforward album to date, and a lot of that has to do with the overall production and sound. Yes, the crackling campfire sounds and gunshots mimicking an old war scene feel on the nose for this sort of project, but never to the point where they feel gimmicky. Despite the story told here, this is a very lighthearted album, and one where the various sound effects and vocal interplay from the Hillbilly Avengers adds a nice touch of warmth to a project lacking in greater scope and idea.
Plus, considering where Simpson has taken his music sonically over the course of his past few studio albums, it’s great to hear the vocal production feel correctly balanced this time around. Yes, I’m one of those critics who complains about Simpson’s enunciation and how his vocals often get buried within the mix, but here, there’s a deeper timbre and richness spotlighted in his delivery never quite heard before that works to sell the hardbitten tale of an outlaw out for revenge. Yes, the Waylon Jennings comparisons will inevitably come into play, as they always do (and even moreso here), but Simpson’s decision to play into older folk and bluegrass material lends this album a greater heft, especially when he can pull off the oddly deeper vocal layering of “Shamrock” fairly well. Fun tune.
Of course, on the note of the material, this is Simpson playing into low-key cowboy territory with a lot of empty space to capture the wide-ranging lonesomeness and atmosphere of the journey ahead. It may be a more conventional and obvious route for him to go down given his last few original projects, but given how clear and tempered everything sounds here, it’s a quietly nice touch to go out on. And while the same band that played on those aforementioned bluegrass projects is here again, this is obviously aiming for something much different. It’s an album that feels rooted in the turn of the century – the 1900s, that is – especially in the hints of blues through the harmonica play on the slower tracks and the faster-paced fiddle and banjo pickups on the more energetic songs, evoking tones and song structures that call back to a time before any of these genres were codified. When coupled with Simpson’s thicker howl, this is an album meant to feel old, which says more about its setting and place than the background does – nice touch. With that said, this album can also feel conventional in its melodic and overall song structures, and while the Colter Wall comparisons kept coming into my mind with every listen, Simpson does it all better than he ever has thus far, albeit without the spark of creativity or originality that can at least make Wall’s Canadian take feel distinct.
… Which is a note on the story itself, and one where I’m of two minds on it. For context, the titular characters reference Simpson’s grandparents, and while this album isn’t about them, it is about a post-Civil War Appalachian couple who fight for survival and find trouble when Juanita gets kidnapped and Dood has to save the day alongside his trusty steed, Shamrock, and his dog, Sam. And given how barren and sparse this album can feel even with the welcome instrumental variety and accompaniment, I get where the Red Headed Stranger comparisons come into play. But for one, that album pulled its story from new and older material, giving the album a cohesiveness while also letting certain singles stand on their own. It was revolutionary for the genre, whereas this album is revolutionary for Simpson in a “coming home” sense, and it’s a project where each track needs to bleed into one another in order to work.
I mean, I guess. Given the incredibly short runtime and fact that most of these tracks are isolated character portraits that tell a very conventional plot (bandit steals Juanita, Dood goes on short journey to find her, Dood gets her back with ease, the end), I’m not even really sure the story is worth all the trouble. I had a blast with “Shamrock” as it was, and Willie Nelson’s guitar contributions on “Juanita” added a nice touch (fitting, huh?), but this is an album desperately lacking in greater dramatic details that made albums like Red Headed Stranger or even other western-inspired projects like Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa so memorable and gripping.
And here’s the thing, I don’t think it was out of pure laziness on Simpson’s part or a desire to just get something out and be done with it already. After railing against the music industry and finding true happiness from independence and loving music again, the lighter approach feels intentional to me, especially when this is his first album that isn’t directly about him. This is an album looking to have more fun focusing on a wild hero capable of accomplishing anything, one whose only real bump in the road is having his dog die and who finds a happy ending relatively quickly and with ease. While it’s on, it’s a blast, but I can’t help but feel that this is an album that will lose its luster relatively quickly after repeated listens and months away from it, especially when there just isn’t much to the story beyond the absolute basics.
And as a fun start to something more, that’s fine, but as potentially the last solo Simpson album, it does feel like a letdown in some regard. Still, the ambition in idea alone at least makes it an entertaining listen, and it is refreshing to hear Simpson in better spirits than before. But I have to be honest and say that this is him making his exit with a delightfully cheery and fun take on something familiar, rather than an opus that feels revolutionary for himself or for the genre. And in some way, given what he already has accomplished, that’s also fine. It’s been a hell of a ride, and this a fine way to ride off into the sunset.