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Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita (High Top Mountain/ Thirty Tigers, 2021)

I own exactly two bluegrass records. They are Sturgill Simpson’s Cuttin’ Grass, Vols. 1 and 2. I bought the first volume knowing only that it was by Sturgill Simpson. I did not know it was a bluegrass record, and, while I like traditional country music, I was completely ignorant of bluegrass. That album was ear-opening enough that by the time the second volume came out, I bought it because it was more of the same music by the same group.

Even so, when The Ballad of Dood & Juanita was announced, I was excited to hear that the title was outside of the Cuttin’ Grass series. Not because I don’t appreciate bluegrass— thanks to Simpson, I certainly do now— but because his previous three records are some of my favorite song collections from this millennium. 

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is one of a handful of records I recommend to anyone who likes independent music but says they don’t like country. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth has some of the most relatable lyrics I’ve ever heard. I had my first child when I was 40. That record opens with, “Hello, my son. Welcome to Earth. You may not be my last, but you’ll always be my first. Wish I’d done this ten years ago, but how could I know that the answer was so easy?” Sound & Fury is in part a paean to Japanese culture and includes John Prine’s creative input, two things for which I have strong affinity.

I was also eager because the title made it seem like there would be a story component, and I'm partial to concept albums. Indeed, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita does tell a simple story: a woman is kidnapped, her partner goes looking for her. That’s it. There’s no immediately discernible subtext nor allegory. There’s no profound moral. It’s over in less than 30 minutes.

And it’s so much fun. 

Part of the reason it’s enjoyable is because it turns out that it's thick with bluegrass made by the Cuttin’ Grass crew, intertwined with catchy mountain melodies, a cappella harmony, and country music. The musicianship is casually excellent, as everyone involved brings the “session” spirit and production values of Cuttin’ Grass to new material that is as natural, and as polished, as the fretboard on a guitar handed down through generations. The song ‘Shamrock’ is a good example. The first half of the song introduces a melody with bluegrass instrumentation and harmonized country vocals that advance the story. In the second half of the song, the players pick up the tempo and dig in as the melody is improvised upon and tossed back and forth seamlessly between banjo, guitar and fiddle.

It’s also entertaining because the straightforwardness and brevity of the story do not rob it of detail. Though they pass by at lightning speed, the three acts of classic storytelling are well defined over the course of the album and every scene and character is easily imaginable. 1862, the Kentucky Appalachians. Dood and Juanita, despite the coal mining economy they were born to, provide for a family of four by farming their land and hunting. Dood is Shawnee on his mother’s side and tough from a lifetime of experiencing racial prejudice. Juanita is an ocean of calm. Dood is shot and Juanita is taken. Dood saddles up his Clydesdale-sized mule, sets his dog on the scent, and seeks out justice on his own terms.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t give any more of the plot, but I will say that my family has listened to the album through more dinners than not since it came out. And as a friend texted after listening for the first time: “Looking forward to the movie.”

Robert Hann: 

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