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Where do I begin when introducing Sturgill Simpson? In the eight years since his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, this maverick’s refusal to play by the rules of the Nashville establishment has turned him into a leading figure of the alternative country movement, and garnered prestigious comparisons to legends Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. His endless willingness to experiment with genre and form has consistently set him apart from otherwise comparable peers Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton – for better or for worse.

“People who deliberately step outside of the lines will always attract criticism, and Sturgill is no different”

For the figurehead of an entire sub-genre, he’s an extremely divisive figure: people who deliberately step outside of the lines will always attract criticism, and Sturgill is no different. While his talent is undeniable and his refusal to do the expected is certainly admirable, for the casual fan, his music can be difficult to digest at times. When it comes to his anime movie, Nirvana cover, or psychedelic funk/hard rock album, some of his creative decisions have been so bizarre (for want of a better word) that many have quickly labelled them as deliberate, false attempts to portray originality. But perhaps this highly traditional album will woo over some of those critics, especially as it arrives hot on the heels of the two stunning collections of bluegrass re-recordings of his older tracks that he released last year.

The record opens with a compelling "Prologue", introducing us to the two characters

This isn’t Sturgill Simpson’s first concept album (his arty, soul-inflected 2016 effort A Sailor’s Guide to Earth functions as a letter to his newborn son and won a Grammy), but it is his first with such a tightly defined plotline. Set during the American Civil War, this collection follows the tale of lovers Dood and Juanita, who are touchingly named after Sturgill’s own grandparents. It reads and plays like a classic Western, with Simpson employing the same stellar band who played on his 2020 bluegrass albums, and sound effects – think gunshots and horses – drift in and out.

The concept album is a tricky form to master, even for those ambitious artists who attempt it. There are countless pitfalls: the ‘storyline’ often takes precedent over the music itself, with lyrics sometimes bordering on farcical or embarrassingly in-your-face, and lacking in nuance or metaphor. At the other end of the spectrum, some attempts lack any clear evidence of a concept at all, making the label seem like nothing but a publicity stunt or an attempt at appearing artistically worthy. Too often, it seems to have the opposite effect.

Simpson performed the endearing titular track "Juanita" at the Outlawfest

Against all the odds, then, this might well be one of Sturgill Simpson’s better albums. It’s slight – two of its ten tracks are the “Prologue” and “Epilogue”, and it clocks in at under thirty minutes – but it’s not short of the bluegrass rave-ups or narrative tales Sturgill does so well. The first true song on the album, “Ol’ Dood (Part 1)”, opens with a fiddle that harks back to the mountain music which birthed the country genre we know today, and Latin-styled love song “Juanita” features American icon Willie Nelson playing his signature guitar Trigger.

"The Ballad of Dood and Juanita... serves as a beautifully crafted thought-piece”

The record’s major downfall is its tendency to play more like a soundtrack than a fully developed album, but given that it was entirely written and recorded in under a week, this is surely forgivable. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, then, serves as a beautifully crafted thought-piece, even if fairly little of the material here will stand alone as effectively as many of Sturgill’s previous songs. He is aware of this, though: no singles were released in advance, and he has expressed no interest in creating any videos to accompany the story.


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In the lead-up to its August release, Sturgill clarified that this would be his final solo album, which seems a shame given how effectively he has refined his sound in recent years. There are rumours, however, that he’s seeking to put together a band and adopt a more collaborative approach to making music, and he may continue to release his work in that fashion (perhaps akin to Jason Isbell’s work with the 400 Unit). Regardless of whether he does or not, though, there is very little doubt that Sturgill Simpson will always keep at least one foot in the music industry.

Outside of his solo career, he has already achieved success as a producer on Tyler Childers’ debut Purgatory in 2017 and Margo Price’s 2020 record That’s How Rumors Get Started, and notably also once played in Price’s touring band The Pricetags. I’d wager that this man will fashion a new but ongoing relationship to the music industry in the years to come, and he’s made it clear that no matter where the road may take him, he’ll arrive there entirely on his own terms.