A Restless Spirit
You have to hand it to country artist Sturgill Simpson; he doesn’t hang around. Following the release of two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass in the last two years, he now returns with a concept album The Ballad of Dood and Juanita (20 August 2021; High Top Mountain), which he reportedly canned within a week.
Simpson has previously traversed the genres of soul, country and heavy, but on this record "about love among the legends of the Kentucky frontier", which tells the tale of a couple separated during the American Civil War, he returns to bluegrass.
“I just wanted to write a story—not a collection of songs that tell a story, but an actual story, front to back … a simple tale of either redemption or revenge and a rollercoaster ride through all the styles of traditional country and bluegrass and mountain music, including gospel and a cappella,” he said.
In 10 songs and around 25 minutes The Ballad of Dood and Juanita recounts the tale of Dood who can “shoot the balls off a bat”(perhaps a reminder that this was written during Covid times). Dood is the “son of a mountain miner and a Shawnee maid” who falls heavily in love with Juanita, “a good woman”, who calms his rage. But tragedy lurks just around the corner as, shortly after, Dood is attacked and Juanita abducted by the outlaw Seamus McClure. Dood vows to track them down and take revenge. He saddles up his faithful horse Shamrock and, together with his dog Sam, he rides out; eventually killing McClure with a single shot.
Musically the context is set at the start by marching boots and a gunshot-filled Prologue. Next Ol’ Dood (Part I) introduces the protagonist who: “Left the varnish off his words, feared no beast nor man […] was harder than the nails that hammerеd Jesus’ hands, He was the onе they called Dood.”
The tale next pays tribute to horse and dog on One in the Saddle, One on the Ground, (and later on Shamrock and Sam), with Simpson harmonising over Stuart Duncan’s fiddle. The lovely ballad Played Out is about carrying heavy burdens and being weary of life.
The highlight of the album centres around the track Juanita, on which 88-year-old outlaw country legend Willie Nelson features, Trigger in hand. Nelson plays a classic solo on a song that is backed by cantina guitars and Latin touches.“There’s an ocean of stars, Hovering over me, I lay under them dreaming, Your face all I see,” Dood laments against some lovely arrangements. This song segues nicely into Go in Peace, which is accompanied by Scott Vestal’s rapid banjo playing.
The album closes with a brief epilogue and Ol’ Dood (Part II), which features more fine fiddle, finalises the story of the killing of Seamus, and ends with the sad sound of a mouth-organ in heavily pouring rain.
The Ballad of Dood & Juanita is a must for anyone who enjoys bluegrass and a historic tale featuring cowboys and derring-dos. Since Simpson’s fundamental album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he has shown himself to be an artist who crosses musical genres, and has acted in movies and on TV, as well as producing his own manga film. This is clearly a man who is on a mission, keen to forge his own path, and seeking to sate his restless spirit.