Country Jukebox Jury – Sturgill Simpson and Jeremy Ivey

Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin Grass: Volume 1

Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 album Sound & Fury was full of rock music which was accompanied by an animated movie. Born in Kentucky, Sturgill has gone back to his roots and picked up some acoustic instruments. I’ve never found my way into his catalogue properly, though I do love what I’ve heard. He has also gone independent, making him a sort of Radiohead figure of country music.

He composed a mailing-list essay to coincide with the release of Cuttin Grass – Volume 1, whose songs are arranged in alphabetical order as if it’s a file dump rather than a carefully considered album. Bluegrass music, to Sturgill, ‘sounded like home…healing…It is made from ancient, organic tones’. Indeed, if songs don’t work with just a voice and guitar, ‘it’s probably not a very good song’.

He initially moved to Nashville to play bluegrass but could not make a living from it. I agree with Trigger at Saving Country Music: Sturgill has had to hide his true status as a bluegrass act in order to make a living as a country singer. All you do is change the production, getting some Dave Cobb dust sprinkled over your tunes, and you’re no longer a bluegrass struggler but a country outlaw.

With the Sound & Fury tour cancelled, and Sturgill’s body crying out for a rest (‘I was in the ER with pre-stroke blood pressure levels’) he slowed down in 2020, treating his fans to a livestream and this album which ‘might make some people forget about their pain and troubles for 55 minutes’. He’s right.

I Don’t Mind was written in the mid-2000s, and Sturgill wrote it is his wife’s favourite song. He leaves his woman and carries a ‘lonely feeling’, thinking of all the things left unsaid. ‘All I find is a world without light’ is his sad, suicidal conclusion. Why, then, does he ask to be loved again? Maybe it’s a deity, not a woman, he walked out on.

Sierra Hull is one of the many talented musicians who appear on the album, adding her echoed harmonies to songs like the new version of Breakers Roar. Turtles All The Way Down was my introduction to the ‘meta-modern sounds’ of Sturgill; the bluegrass version removes the orchestra and adds traditional fiddle to reshape the song. That fiddle, by Stuart Duncan, is brilliant throughout; he played with Marty Stuart at the Grand Ole Orpy the other week and was called the best in town. I trust Marty’s judgement.

This is a good way for me to look back on Sturgill’s catalogue. I like the gentle Time After All and the peppy tenor of Life Ain’t Fair and The World is Mean, which in its rewritten form namechecks the time Sturgill busked outside the venue for the CMAs: ‘You ain’t gotta read between the lines, you just gotta turn the page’. The original, from an album of 2014, is more of a Waylon Jennings-type tune while this new version is pure bluegrass.

The quick tunes like Railroad of Sin find a place alongside ballads like Old King Coal, both from his 2014 album High Top Mountain. The latter is a waltz that swaps pedal steel for human voices, describing the demise of the raw material that funds much of the livelihoods in Kentucky, but now ‘the rivers run muddy and the mountains are bare’.

As a gift for his supporters this is superb. As a catch-up service-cum-greatest hits it is invaluable. Everyone needs to slow down and, in the great pandemic, Sturgill slows everyone down from the panic and pain. 4/5

Jeremy Ivey – Waiting Out The Storm

As Morgan Evans said of Kelsea Ballerini, Jeremy Ivey may not even be the best songwriter in his kitchen. Along with his band the Extraterrestrials, Jeremy’s new album Waiting Out The Storm opens with Jeremy’s Dylanesque nasal whine asking ‘How’s your nuclear threat? How good is the virtual sex? Do your dreams have commercials?’ on a song called Tomorrow People. It’s co-written with Margo Price, the lady he eats his toast with in that kitchen.

This is another album steeped in classic singer/songwriter sounds like Gram Parsons, Dylan and The Band. Movies (‘They don’t make those stories anymore’) calls back to those days in a very meta song which features a harmonica solo while Loser Town is 100% Neil Young heartland rock, sung in a less whiny voice which, like the Canadian’s, won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Someone Else’s Problem is a sadly timely song about homelessness (‘the city should clean up all this trash’), slave labour, war and charity, even the original sin, set to a loping rhythm. It’s like a tribute to John Lennon’s political era but it still seems genuine. Hands Down In Your Pockets stays in the pocket of a groove as Jeremy talks though a similarly apocalyptic message. There are some cute backing vocals from Margo on Things Could Get Much Worse, which follows the gloomy White Shadow.

How It Has To Be is similarly pessimistic, even with a killer guitar solo in the middle of it and some Hammond organ throughout. The first line mentions Neil Armstrong and Tinder, while Oprah and Susan B Anthony appear in the third verse. The song bookends the album after the time-shifting opening track. Fun fact: two tracks mention rust. Go and listen to the album to see which ones! 4/5

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