Look, I would defend Ed Sheeran’s musical genius to just about anyone, but as a girl raised near the birthplace of country music in the Appalachian Mountains, country, bluegrass, and folk music have always spoken directly to my soul. And perhaps no other artist in the past decade has spoken to it so well as the risk-taking Kentucky singer-songwriter, Sturgill Simpson.
Simpson surprised his fans by releasing three albums in 2020 and 2021. The first two were bluegrass covers of his previous songs, and to the surprise and delight of many (including me!), they were very successful, reaching #24 on the Billboards chart. His third release, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, just came out and besides the heavy bluegrass influence, it is an album like no other Simpson has done (which is saying a lot because he has covered quite a bit of musical ground, having also released a heavy metal album earlier in his career).
The album reminds me of riding in the car with my granddad singing Marty Robbin’s song, “El Paso,” which is exactly what Simpson is harkening back to — a time when stories were more central to song. The album, over the course of 10 songs, tells the story of a man named Dood and his wife, Juanita. It’s a Wild West-style adventure, and by the end of the first song, I was deeply curious — and subsequently absorbed by the rest of the album.
I have a deep respect for Sturgill Simpson as an artist in our current culture. It was a risk to put out an album that can’t easily be broken up into singles to market. It also takes courage to put out a product that requires 30 minutes to fully experience, rather than the three minutes most songs vie for. This type of album is an exercise in mindfulness, risk, creativity; it’s a testament to the timelessness of well-crafted stories. This creative work, above all, shows Sturgill Simpson’s wisdom — he’s a man, who at the heart of this album, is asking us to simply slow down and listen.
Slowing down to listen is largely at odds with how most mainstream music is being produced today. It takes time to tell stories well, and in our attention economy, time is a precious commodity. So, what I think Sturgill Simpson understands, as well as fellow Appalachian artists like Tyler Childers, is that people are hungry for music with substantial storytelling. We want music to move our souls and hearts, not just our bodies and lips. We want to feel connected to a time and place because so much of what occupies our attention is disembodied and could take place anywhere to anyone.
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita delivers a great story told in a pleasing, soulful way — it’s an opportunity to gather round a speaker, maybe also a fire pit, and listen carefully and intentionally to a good story, sung by a talented vocalist and musician. Glass of whiskey in hand, of course.