Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions
High Top Mountain Records (via Thirty Tigers)
Simpson’s Back Catalogue Revisited and Re-Imagined in (almost) Traditional Style
Described in some quarters as a “surprise” Bluegrass album, the only surprise actually comes from the unexpected timing of the release; and Simpson’s timely decision to revisit a great deal of prior material, and less from the fact that Simpson is putting out as a Bluegrass album.
Simpson’s first band Sunday Valley exhibited many features of the genre (Check out their 2011 take on “Sometimes Wine” on YouTube which involves frenetic electric flatpicking and Bluegrass structures and chords almost turned into Cowpunk – https://youtu.be/LcVdCI84tFI ) – only to reappear here in a more traditional form.
Assembling an absolutely top-notch cast of players (Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, Mike Bub and Stuart Duncan to name but four) the quality of playing is absolutely stellar as might be expected.
What is there to gain from doing this then?
Well, apart from the musicians having a great time, this release places the songs to the fore – and to my ears, is all the better for the back to basics approach as I sometimes struggle with some of Simpson’s more far-out experimental moments.
That’s not to say that this is a firmly Traditional approach – Sierra Hull’s soaring reverby backing vocals on “Breakers Roar” and the out of tune/in tune slidey fiddle intro to “Just Let Go” are two of many little moments where Bluegrass forms are adapted and played with, but fully in support of the song – and there’s actual percussion on the album too – on a Bluegrass album!
“Life of Sin” from “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” comes across as a timeless Classic Bluegrass tune and “Turtles All The Way Down” now has the feel of JD Crowe and the New South with Waylon Jennings fronting them.
“Railroad of Sin” with its Bob Wills cattle calls turns into a frantic stomper and Scott Vestal’s banjo drives along “Sitting Here Without You” and many uptempo others.
Of the slower, mid-tempo numbers “Time After All” originally on “High Top Mountain” now allows space for more delicate leads and breaks and philosophical lyricism
“..it’s only time after all…”
whereas “Voices” comes across as a dark old-timey narrative ballad (with the longest gradual fade you’ll hear in ages) – as on a lot of these reimagined songs, Sturgill’s lyricism now has more room to come to the fore.
By utilising more formal-traditional musical structures, the listener’s emphasis (well this listener anyway) is the voice and its message rather than the shock of the metamodern (sic)…Country Music.
Big credit to producer David Ferguson too, for constructing a dynamic and varied soundscape throughout with instruments appearing in and out against a solid rhythmic mix.
If you’re a Sturgill Simpson fan, then I can’t see how you can’t but love this take on his back catalogue – and there’ll be many who’ll prefer some of these versions to the originals (me!).
If you’re a Traditional Bluegrass fan and Sturgill Simpson wasn’t on your radar (unlikely I know) then this release might seem like the Next Big Thing in Bluegrass; in a fairly conservative musical form in many ways, this takes enough risks while maintaining sufficient respect allied to Simpson’s trademarked strong songwriting.
A win-win for Mr Simpson on all counts.
Review by Nick Barber
Released October 16th 2020
Vinyl released December 11th 2020