It’s no surprise that Sturgill Simpson lists What’s Going On, The Wall and Astral Weeks as some of his favourite records, because the concept album is fast becoming his stock-in-trade. The hard rock ferocity of 2019’s Sound and Fury, with it’s accompanying Netflix anime, has been replaced by a more traditional country bluegrass sound on new record The Ballad of Dood and Juanita. “I just wanted to write a story—not a collection of songs that tell a story, but an actual story, front to back,” says Simpson and the result is a 19th century tale of redemption and revenge set in 1862 Kentucky. Incredibly, it was conceived and recorded in just five days!
Marching boots and the distant thunder of cannon during the opening prologue establish the genre and the exposition of the tale immediately. Simpson has never been afraid of reinvention, but the western hasn’t really been popular since the late sixties, and this anachronistic approach may alienate fans of previous records. Bear with it though because the album is full of simple pleasures that don’t pretend to be doing anything more than conveying an uncomplicated tale in an authentic way.
As storyteller, Simpson’s voice is a rich joy and the album’s songs have enough individual identity to divide the yarn into distinctive sections. ‘Ol’ Dood Part One’ is a brisk introduction to our hero, ‘One in the Saddle, One in the Ground’ establishes his relationship with Juanita in a more tender style before the jaunty spirit of ‘Shamrock’ lifts the tempo once again, and it is this ebb and flow that is one of the record’s principal pleasures.
The catalyst for the concept emerged after Simpson binged on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and the country legend appears with Simpson on Juanita before the record barrels towards its conclusion with the nippy ‘Go in Peace’, a barrage of gunfire in the epilogue and finally the denouement of ‘Ol’ Dood Part Two’, which concludes with a delicate musical outro amidst a crackling campfire, reminding us that ultimately this record is a simple tale told in an unremarkable but satisfying way. Accept this and the experience becomes a pleasant and rewarding thirty minutes in the company of one of America’s most intriguing musicians.