Sturgill Simpson Made a Bluegrass Concept Album For His Grandparents. It Rules

The shapeshifting songwriter and family man returns with ‘The Ballad of Dood and Juanita,’ the freest and most fun full-length of his career.
JT
Chicago, US
Sturgill Simpson at the Ryman Auditorium
Sturgill Simpson (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Sturgill Simpson’s career has always been about subverting expectations: he’s a so-called savior of country music and punk individualist unconcerned with living up to that unsolicited title. Self-releasing his early albums, he started making music in earnest during his mid-thirties as a cross between a country traditionalist and a DMT-taking outlaw. Moving to major labels, he brought in swaggering horn sections and muscular rock’n’roll, netting a Grammy in 2016 and releasing a left-field Netflix anime film to go with his bruising 2019 LP. Going indie again, he switched up the formula last year with a series of bluegrass renditions of his older material called Cuttin’ Grass. His latest, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, is a Civil War-era folk and bluegrass concept album, unsurprisingly another striking reinvention for the 43-year-old maverick. 

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Simpson began work on The Ballad of Dood and Juanita as he was filming the forthcoming Martin Scorcese film Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma (he’s cast alongside Jason Isbell and has also appeared as supporting characters in The Hunt and Queen & Slim). After revisiting the most iconic country concept album, Willie Nelson’s 1975 masterpiece Red Headed Stranger, Simpson wrote a story in just a few days and enlisted his Cuttin’ Grass band the Hillbilly Avengers to flesh out the material. The songs here are breezy, playful, and carry the same frenetic immediacy as Cuttin’ Grass. 

If there’s one constant in Simpson’s twist-filled catalog, besides his enthusiasm in traversing the traditions and textures of American music, it’s his grounding and ceaseless love for family. His first album, High Top Mountain, featured an ode to his grandfathers in the highlight “Hero,” and his third, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, was inspired both by his own time in the U.S. Navy and a letter his paternal grandfather wrote during his service in the military. On both volumes of Cuttin’ Grass, Simpson credited that same late grandfather as executive producer, a public thank you for introducing his grandson to bluegrass. It’s fitting then that The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is dedicated to his maternal grandparents, Lawrence “Dood” Fraley, an Air Force veteran and coal miner who appeared as the spoken word intro on Simpson’s 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and his wife Juanita. 

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Here, Simpson imagines a fictionalized version of his grandparents in 1862 Kentucky, merging familial bonds with classic American myth. A capella opener “Prologue,” which serves as a Greek chorus by way of Appalachia, introduces the couple: “Ol' Dood was an eagle eye / Juanita was his dove / He was a mighty mountain man / She was his one true love.” Simpson has long said that his grandfather first showed him classic Western films, and the narrative here follows these simple adventure stories of good, evil, redemption, and revenge. Dood and Juanita are in love; Dood travels the land with his trusty horse and his loving dog; Juanita gets kidnapped by a bandit who shoots Dood; Dood recovers from his wounds thanks to a Cherokee Chief but loses his dog; Dood rescues Juanita and kills her kidnapper. 

But the good vs. evil plot ultimately takes a secondary role to the quality of Simpson’s earthy and undeniable bluegrass songs. Blistering fiddle rips through “Ol Dood (Part I)” and sets up the hero as the “Son of a mountain miner / and a Shawnee maiden.” There’s even jaw harp that punctuates highlight “Played Out,” and Willie Nelson, one of the album’s big inspirations, appears for an acoustic guitar solo on the gorgeous “Juanita.” The band is at its barn-burning best on uptempo numbers like “Go In Peace,” but throughout Simpson seems like he’s at ease and having a blast. 

On top of the obvious comfort this music brings Simpson, it also marks another entry in his fierce streak of independence. Simpson has always been one to buck the industry even as he’s celebrated by it: He protested Trump while busking outside the CMA Awards and threatened to give his Grammy to Beyoncé had he won Album of the Year in 2017. In interviews, he’s explained how these professional responsibilities and industry realities are also personal, as a husband and father. “I have something at home so profoundly real and powerful,” he told Uproxx in 2020. “With this job, the gift is you get to go out and make strangers happy, and share creation with them. Ninety-nine percent of the rest of the job is truly manufactured horseshit.” 

Since The Ballad of Dood and Juanita, like the two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass, is out on his own High Top Mountains label, it’s no surprise Simpson sounds freer than ever. When he was getting constant comparisons to rebel legends like Waylon Jennings on his first album, he sang, “Well the most outlaw thing that I've ever done / Was give a good woman a ring” on “Life Ain’t Fair But the World Is Mean.” To Simpson, stability is defiance. And Dood succeeds for how Simpson somehow both cooly and sincerely navigates his personal histories for boundary-pushing music. Though the LP is arguably more slight than some of his earlier releases, his vision is clear-eyed and his execution is endearingly unfussy. These are good songs that tell a story written for the sake of being good songs that tell a story. 

After Dood’s death in 2017, Simpson posted a tribute to him on Facebook. “My Papaw taught me to play Country Music and more importantly, he taught me to love Country Music,” he wrote. “He was without a single doubt the greatest man and finest human being I will ever know in my time here on this Earth and there will never, ever be another like him.” The bluegrass and Appalachian folk that fills the tracklist of The Ballad of Dood and Juanita has been with Simpson since childhood. But while his next album will likely be another abrupt shift, able to lovingly toy with and rebel against American musical traditions, whatever comes next will certainly be guided by his North Star: his family.