Review: “Cuttin’ Grass” by Sturgill Simpson

As many Anchors as can possibly be allocated (5/5 Anchors)

Lyle Griggs, Copy

Two weeks before both the presidential election and my first major college application deadline, I was in a dark place. Anxiety consumed me; waves of stress washed over me; 10,000 bees buzzed in the Jeep Grand Cherokee of my mind. And then, just when I thought that nothing would improve, Sturgill Simpson dropped a bluegrass album.

While there are no new tracks on “Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions” (it recycles tunes from Simpson’s earlier albums), the album certainly shows a new musical direction for the artist. A far cry from his last album, “Sound and Fury,” a furious and metallic rock record that surprised some of the artist’s country-loving fans, “Cuttin’ Grass” is strictly acoustic, and it reimagines Nashville’s roots rather than pushing its boundaries as Simpson is wont to do.

Musically, the album is a masterpiece. Simpson is backed by a remarkably talented cast of bluegrass musicians, including fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Scott Vestal and mandolin player and vocalist Sierra Hull. I’m partial to the banjo, but Hull’s mandolin picking is still perhaps the most masterful musical feat on the album. As always, Simpson himself is a star: his voice, as different as it is from a traditional bluegrass timbre, is somehow perfect for his new genre.

Although musically masterful throughout, not all tracks on “Cuttin’ Grass” are created equal. Some of Simpson’s original songs are simply difficult to adapt to acoustic bluegrass, and the higher cadence that the genre demands makes some of his originally slow-paced songs sound odd. Still, many interpretations rival their original versions; the opening song, “All Around You,” for example, takes a somewhat dull original track and makes it spectacular. My favorite track is “Turtles All the Way Down,” a tear-jerking, soaring bluegrass take on Simpson’s well-known song about psychedelic drugs.

As with any twenty-track album, not every song on “Cuttin’ Grass” is perfect. Still, its release was probably the best single moment of 2020. My only complaint is cosmetic: I preferred Simpson’s former shaggy haircut, and I hope he grows it back out while recording “Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2.”