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Albums Of The Week: Sturgill Simpson | Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions

The root-rock rule-breaker drops his second surprise album in as many months.

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THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:Sturgill Simpson has released his second surprise bluegrass album in two months: Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions, produced by David Ferguson.

For Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions, Simpson reunites with an A-Team of acoustic musicians — now dubbed “The Hillbilly Avengers” — to once again revisit and reinterpret his catalogue. But going back into the studio so quickly after releasing Vol. 1 didn’t mean simply repeating a formula. “On Vol. 2, we recorded everything I was too afraid to do on Vol. 1,” says Simpson. “It’s hard to deny that this is a much more personal record. I was thinking about my kids, my grandfather, my wife.”

The 12 dazzling songs on the follow-up volume focus heavily on Simpson’s 2016 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album and was nominated for Album of the Year; half of the new tracks are taken from that groundbreaking record, which was conceived as an offering from Simpson to his newborn son. The other selections — including three songs from his 2013 debut High Top Mountain, and one from his first band, Sunday Valley — continue in this more intimate vein, largely focused on family history and relationships. “It’s hard to deny that this is a much more personal record,” says Simpson. “I was thinking about my kids, my grandfather, my wife.”

Unexpected as it may seem, the Cuttin’ Grass series is just the latest installment in Simpson’s iconoclastic, genre-defying career path: his 2019 album Sound & Fury is nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Album category, making him the first artist ever to win the Country Album award and compete for Rock Album.

Photo by Semi Song.

As Simpson continues to explore different musical directions, the biggest surprise on The Cowboy Arms Sessions is certainly the closer, Hobo Cartoon, a new song he co-wrote with the late, incomparable Merle Haggard.“We got to know each other in the last two years of his life,” says Simpson. “He would call a lot, we’d talk on the phone. When he got sick, he was still writing songs, even in his hospital bed. This just popped up one day in the in box — he sent me these lyrics in a text and he said, ‘From one railroad man to another.’ After four or five years, it was time to cowboy up and give this thing a go. So I finished writing the song, and it just felt weird to imagine it with some big eight-piece band. Merle loved bluegrass, so it felt like a proper homage, really exposed and stripped down to the root of something. Maybe I’ll recut it with a hard country band one day, but it just seemed like a beautiful way to end this chapter.”

The Cuttin’ Grass project got its start after Simpson fell sick with the Coronavirus early in 2020 and had to cancel his touring plans. Stuck at home recovering, he challenged his fans to raise money for charity, promising them a live show and then a new album if they hit various milestones. When their donations blew past those numbers, he performed a livestream concert from the Ryman Auditorium. To make good on the offer of a new recording, he returned to the music that was introduced to him as a child by his grandfather, Ora Simpson (Ora is actually credited as the executive producer of The Cowboy Arms Sessions; “it’s a shame he never got to hear this,” says Simpson, “because he would have loved it”). Over the summer, producer David Ferguson chased down some of the best bluegrass players in Nashville, and they knocked out the first Cuttin’ Grass album in a few days.

But when the reviews of the album came in, they reminded Simpson that he had actually told his fans he would deliver two albums before the end of 2020. “The initial plan was to record everything from my first three albums,” he says. “But then reading that the expectation was that another one was coming, I thought I better get back in the studio. If it was going to happen sooner or later, it might as well be sooner so that I can move on to actually working on a next real album.”

Photo by Semi Song.

This time, they convened at the legendary Cowboy Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, where the likes of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings worked and played. “There are all these lingering reminders and energy of Cowboy Jack in that building,” says Simpson, “so maybe a little of his eccentricities turn up on this album.” They cranked out four songs a day, culminating in the blistering version of Call To Arms that opens the album. “Everybody knows their job, so we kept it moving without second-guessing or overthinking,” he says.

No matter how smooth the sessions, though, it’s always a challenging process for a songwriter to dig back into his own work. “Studying these songs, I was able to really see my growth in writing songs and learning to tell stories better,” says Simpson. “Hearing them stripped down, really raw and exposed, the stories stand out even more than they did on the actual albums. On a lot of them, there wasn’t really any fat to cut out or really change, and the ones I did approach thinking ‘How can we do this different?’ just didn’t work. So it made me feel a lot better and more confident in myself as a songwriter, and made me realize wherein lies the challenge moving forward and how to break out of the structures and find new ways to do things.”

But he’s certain that the bluegrass series will continue in one form or another. “Cuttin’ Grass will be my retirement plan,” he says. “I’ve got one more album to do in terms of the five-album narrative I’ve always been talking about, and after that. I’ll just keep cuttin’ grass — there’ll probably be 17 of these things when it’s all said and done. But I’ve also learned that I don’t want to put any boundaries on myself ever again. Even with Sailor’s Guide or Sound & Fury, I went in saying ‘This is what I want to do,’ and then you get in there and you’re sort of riding that lightning. You don’t ever want to put any limitations on your own expression or creativity.”

In the meantime, Sturgill Simpson feels liberated by the chance to record and release his music on his own schedule, no matter how breakneck the speed. “I can’t believe I’m putting two records out in two months,” he says. “I like having fun and not having to wait on anybody else’s timeline, and putting things out while I’m still in that creative headspace. It’s really rewarding, because I’m still excited about this music the first time fans are hearing it.”