Not many albums open with a minute-long gun-shot-riddled ‘Prologue’ accompanied by the sound of a whistling army on the march masquerading as a chorus line, but not many artists are Sturgill Simpson. The prolific yet publicity-shy star’s latest release is less a chart-friendly collection of twanging country tunes and more a deft slice of sonic storytelling. A concept album that tells the tale of a separated couple during the American Civil War, ‘The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’ even features a guest spot from one of the finest to ever do it, the 88-year-old Willie Nelson, on the elegiac track ‘Juanita’.
Fittingly, Simpson’s seventh album feels like something of the past, its meldings of traditional mountain music, gospel and Appalachian cowboy crooning stacked with echoes of Nelson’s iconic 1975 album ‘Red Headed Stranger’ – which told the story of a man on the run after shooting his wife and her lover – as well as moody anthems of Marty Robbins’ fabulously filmic 1959 release ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’. Even the artwork, a roughly but warmly sketched scribble of a staunch-looking man, horse and hound, looks like the cover of a long lost John Steinbeck novel, neatly slotting Simpson into the tradition of great American storytellers.
In his role of gravelly voiced narrator, Simpson relays the tale of the sharp-shooting Dood, the “son of a mountain miner and a Shawnee maid” – as we hear on ‘Ol’ Dood (Part I)’ – who fast falls in love with Juanita on the fiddle-assisted ‘One In The Saddle, One On The Ground’. But tragedy is never far away – only a few moments after we meet her, Dood’s true love Juanita is kidnapped. He vows to track her down and bring her back home, taking his horse Shamrock and his dog Sam along for the ride. He’s in love with both animals almost as much as he is with Juanita, and both get a song of their own; the Buck Owens bounce of ‘Shamrock – Hot On The Trail’ and the heartfelt a capella of ‘Sam (Rest On High)’.
We won’t tell you what happens next – suffice to say that Simpson himself calls the record “a simple tale of either redemption or revenge”. His fourth album in two years, following his two volumes of ‘Cuttin’ Grass’ bluegrass records, ‘The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’ is not just a faithful, fun celebration of a traditional sound, but that of a traditional form, too.
Release date: August 20
Record label: High Top Mountain