Since Sturgill’s debut in the early 2010s, he has always had the reputation as somebody who has let his musical integrity possibly hinder his commercial success. Frustrated by the country world, he decided to move into the blues rock world with his 2019 album Sound and Fury and the levee broke. Usually, netflix specials based on your albums are for super duper mega stars like Beyonce or presidential candidates like Kanye West, but S&F was a hit in the listening public for its simplicity and bare bone approach to rock and roll that was last attempted by early Strokes trying to mimic Television. So what does a recently commercial successful blues rock guitar player conspire to do next? Well a bluegrass cover album of his previously recorded material of course!
Let’s not get carried away here, this album most likely occurred at this moment because of fundraising efforts, but that also shows the excitement from fans of what Sturgill could produce with this timbre and approach. That excitement is both warranted and unmerited.
Starting with the positive, Simpson’s songwriting ability is only highlighted further by sparser arrangements and voice-centered mixing. And the subject matter, potentially surprising to people not familiar with Simpson, spans everything from DMT to gospel, whiskey to loneliness, and everything in between. “All around you” opens with a solid Sierra Hull kick off with a brisk ¾ sound that resembles anything from the golden era of the genre. Until the 6m slips in on the chorus and transitions us into the verse. But lines like, “there will be nights that go on forever/ like you’re long lost at sea never to be found” evoke the lonesomeness of the Stanleys and show the strength of the album is Sturgill’s previous material.
While the material itself can resemble bluegrass on paper, perceptions of this as a well executed bluegrass album will have its limits. Beginning with the mix, it is jumbled, confused, and chaotic. Jammers out there will recognize that fill arrangements are an important aspect of a tight bluegrass album, and require constant, but not very difficult coordination with one’s fellow jammers. The banjo may take a verse, but if they are singing tenor on the chorus, the mandolin or fiddle might move in to fill the space. Apparently, musicians like Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, and Scott Vestal either have been separated from the jam ecosystem for so long that they forgot this, or simply didn’t think it was worth it to argue with producer David Ferguson. The last possibility, and probably the most likely, is that it is Sturgill’s album and most of these fill onslaughts involve his flimsy right hand that seems like it’s connected to a Baby Taylor or a 500$ gibson rather than what I assume to be a functional instrument.
While Sturgill’s playing itself is messy and shows his reliance on amplification, Hull, Duncan and company do bring necessary instrumental talent despite some misplaced fills. Hull’s playing is typically shimmering potentially to a fault, but that style fits perfectly on tracks like “Breakers Roar” which include almost angelic high background voices. Hull enters in with that time hue and the solo flows wonderfully back into the lyrics. Creating a similar disposition, the song fades with the with Sturgill’s voice fading into the background. Not exactly a bluegrass ending, but it fits much of Simpson’s material.
The fact that much of these previous originals transition to bluegrass so smoothly proves several things. The first being that Sturgill’s material can be carried on its own merits which can’t be said for many current country artists. Secondly, this is a bluegrass album. The addition of drums, nor the subject matter of some of the songs, should change that. Third, this is a mediocre bluegrass album because while Simpson can write a good bluegrass song, he does not yet possess the nuances and the unwritten rules that create the traditional bluegrass formula. Lastly, that lack of tightness in the arrangements will not harm the selling of the product outside of the bluegrass world and may inspire many to learn the material of Hull, Duncan, or even Mike Bub! Simpson, thanks to donations from bluegrass and Simpson fans that saw potential in his project, has produced one of the most important crossover projects in several years.