Sturgill Simpson Explains The Bluegrass Inspiration in His New Album ‘Cuttin’ Grass’

by Jon D. B.
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From a grandfather obsessed with bluegrass to his own Kentucky roots, Sturgill Simpson dives deep into the inspiration behind his new album, ‘Cuttin’ Grass’.

For Sturgill Simpson, this album starts with his third grade self.

His newest release, Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions), is his first bluegrass album. This – and the album itself – come as a complete shock to fans. The album is a “love letter” for Simpson, one born from a battle with COVID-19 that almost took his life.

Among just being happy to be alive and kicking, Sturgill says this year’s pandemic has him rediscovering his truth. And for the undeniably American musician – this truth is bluegrass.

Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass roots run back to his grandfather

“My paternal grandfather was sort of a bluegrass freak,” Sturgill says in the opening of an email sent to fans. “He played a little mandolin, and after he retired, he’d travel around to bluegrass festivals in his motor home making field recordings. He just lived and ate and breathed it, and every time he’d come to visit, he’d try to shove it down my throat.”

Sturgill notes he wasn’t ready for the plucks and ancient organics of bluegrass at the time. But now? “I wish more than anything [my grandfather] was still here and could hear this collection of songs.”

“He would sit me down and play cassette tapes of live bluegrass. One night in my room, when he could sense my rejection of what I was hearing, he looked at me directly and said, “One day it’s gonna get in ya, and it’ll never get out.”

And his grandfather couldn’t have been more right.

Bluegrass, to Sturgill Simpson, “sounds like home”

“Many years later, after returning home to Kentucky from the military and living for some time out on the West coast, I was driving down the road one day and the public radio station played an old Monroe Brothers song and it absolutely floored me. A wave of emotion slammed me in the chest and I had to pull over on the side of the road. I was pretty much drifting at the time—completely lost, I guess you could say—and hearing that music brought everything to the surface,” Sturgill adds.

For the musician, who’s catalogue touches almost every genre of American music, “it sounded like home”.

“Bluegrass music is healing. I truly believe this to be true. It is made from ancient, organic tones and, as with most all forms of music, the vibrations and the pulse can be extremely therapeutic.”

The open letter to fans is deeply intimate. It delves into his successes, yes – but vastly more so into his failures. Amid them all, however, Simpson notes that a bluegrass album was “always in the back of my head”.

“I had it in my mind for a long time that someday I wanted to cut as many of these songs as possible in that fashion,” he clarifies. “Just organic and stripped down to the raw bones of the composition, without any heady production. If you can’t sit down and play the song like that, it’s probably not a very good song.”

Nashville’s “best bluegrass players” are on ‘Cuttin’ Grass’

To finally realize this long-held dream, Simpson turns to his “partner in crime” and co-producer, David Ferguson. Ferguson “has been a true friend and touchstone” for the artist in Nashville. And as the record is evidence of – the two make a fantastic team.

“Get all the best players in town,” is how Simpson says it all started. “And we went in and banged this record out in about three days, with no planning or preparation. Ferg had been begging me to make this album since we’d met in 2015.”

Simpson finally caves, but only because they both agree on their “key element” to bluegrass.

“What you play off the floor is what it’s going to be,” Simpson tells fellow musicians. “We’re not punching in solos or overdubbing anything. It’s just going to be totally raw and live.” For Ferg and Simpson, “modern recording technology and the endless choices it brings, even modern bluegrass recordings have suffered from the soul-sucking pursuit of perfection.”

As such, the duo set out to make an album stripped of modern recording ilk. Instead, their release would be an ode to true bluegrass and its roots in unfiltered, unhindered live music:

“Merle Haggard once told me that “perfect is about the most boring thing on Earth.” When it comes to music, he was dead on. As a result it was the fastest recording I’ve ever made.”

Sturgill Simpson

If Simpson had to claim the most “definitively bluegrass song on the record”, his answer? All the Pretty Colors.

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