Sturgill Simpson reveals Merle Haggard co-write on newest album
At the stroke of midnight, Sturgill Simpson released without notice his newest album, Cuttin’ Grass, Volume 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions. For the album, he brought together “The Hillbilly Avengers” again that is filled with an all-star cast of musicians. Just like the previous album, they were revisiting and reinterpreting Sturgill’s musical selections in the style he originally tried when he moved to Nashville in 2005. With previous albums, he has proven that he cannot be categorized into just one genre. In fact, he won Best Country Album with the Grammy awards and is currently nominated for Best Rock Album for Sound & Fury.
“On Volume 2, we recorded everything I was too afraid to do on Volume 1,” says Simpson in the note to fans upon the release. “For that one, everything was more conventional bluegrass, sort of straight down the middle. But as a benefit of the musicians all getting to know each other and feeling more comfortable, we took more chances and felt more like a band. That gave me the confidence to come in with songs that I was a little more worried how they would translate to bluegrass—but weirdly, it just underscored that, in the end, I guess I’m just a bluegrass songwriter.”
These bluegrass albums may seem to be a tribute to his family, particularly his grandparents who instilled the knowledge of bluegrass music. in fact, his grandfather, Ora Simpson, is credited as the Executive Producer of the album. “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.”
One of the most interesting stories on the album is that of “Hobo Cartoon,” which Sturgill Simpson co-wrote with the late 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.”
For the Volume 2, Sturgill Simpson and the Hillbilly Avengers worked their magic in Cowboy Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. They ended up working up four songs a day in the same space where Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash had played. “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.”
Is the last of the bluegrass series of Sturgill Simpson projects? From the sounds of it, fans can look forward to more albums. “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.”
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Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.