Two bluegrass albums came out last Friday from Sturgill Simpson and the Steep Canyon Rangers: two well-known acts in the country and folk music spheres. In terms of popular appeal, it might end up being one of the biggest days for the bluegrass genre in recent memory. Without further ado, here’s a brief overview of the albums, the artists behind them, and the world they’re released into.
Kentucky alt-rocker Sturgill Simpson isn’t one for making the same kind of album twice. So it comes as no surprise his new album, or ‘mixtape’ as he calls it, Cuttin’ Grass is something entirely different. Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions is a collection of 20 songs from his catalog that have been remade as bluegrass tunes. Of course that’s how an artist like Simpson would follow up his dystopian heavy rock album, Sound & Fury. If the music from Cuttin’ Grass were translated visually like it was on Sound & Fury, it would be the polar opposite of the anime film’s depiction of his last album, which followed a samurai’s journey through a devastated and corrupt wasteland. The single image on the cover of Cuttin’ Grass depicts Sturgill Simpson riding his lawnmower wearing a tee shirt and aviator sunglasses; it’s enough to convey exactly how different the album’s mood is than his last one. (Read our review of his recent album Sound & Fury here).
Since Sound & Fury came out a year ago, our country, and world, has fallen into an even more fragile state. Simpson came down with COVID earlier this year, suffering personally from the virus that’s been ravaging our world at large. It’s shocking to think that Simpson worked with Junpei Mizusaki on the dystopian short film for Sound & Furty before the coronavirus pandemic. The short film seems more like a harrowing vision of mid or post-pandemic life. But then again, maybe acoustic bluegrass tunes on Cuttin’ Grass are much more appropriate for the moment we’re currently in. With everyone across the globe struggling in their own unique way to navigate an ever-changing reality and an uncertain future, the collective capacity for dystopian horror has disappeared; it feels too close to home. The bluegrass charm on Cuttin’ Grass comes as a musical vaccine, injecting a wholesome, simpler comfort to an afflicted world. And it’s probably not a coincidence that no song from Sound & Fury was remade for The Butcher Shoppe Sessions.
The Steep Canyon Rangers released their own bluegrass album last Friday, called Arm in Arm. The band from North Carolina isn’t just dabbling in bluegrass though – they’ve been making American bluegrass music for the last two decades. In 2009, The Rangers started gaining huge exposure from touring and recording with famous comedian (and skilled banjo player) Steve Martin. By mixing traditional bluegrass with elements of contemporary country and rock, The Rangers have created an appeal that reaches outside the fundamental bluegrass audience. On Arm in Arm, The SCR’s build on their legacy of integrating bluegrass with Americana rock.
It’s obvious to see how the Steep Canyon Rangers are sticking to their musical roots on their latest album. The same could be said for Sturgill Simpson, albeit not in the same way. Growing up in Kentucky, Simpson has bluegrass in his DNA – so his venture into bluegrass music feels like he’s returning to his own roots. Either way, the releases from Simpson and the SCR mark an important day for bluegrass music, which is sure to be appreciated by longtime fans and first-time listeners alike.
Check out both of these new albums below (or wherever you listen to music). Enjoy