Sturgill Simpson has always been one of my favorite modern country artists. The music he releases is consistently refreshing and new on the scene, from fast-paced country classics like Poor Rambler to country/rock experimental tracks like Best Clockmaker on Mars. Everytime Simpson releases a new album, it seems to come from left field, a musical surprise that brushes up against the foul line before gliding effortlessly over the far fence. And The Ballad of Dood and Juanita seems to be another one of Simpson’s surprise homers.
The Ballad of Dood and Juanita is a country album that’s unique even in its own field. It’s an amalgam of classic mountain country and hillbilly, jaw-harp, twangy folk music. Personally, it seems reminiscent of Colter Wall’s Western Swing and Waltzes and Other Punchy Songs, a similarly folksy, twangy country album with about a dozen words in the title. Simpson had previously explained the inspiration behind the album to Rolling Stone, saying that he wanted to put together an album that went past simply a collection of commonly themed songs and moved more into the realm of storytelling. In fact, The Ballad is one of few country albums coming out nowadays that maintain a common throughline throughout each song. Though Dood and Juanita aren’t necessarily mentioned by name in every song, Simpson sings out the story of the couple in the familiarly strong, wailing country voice he’s so well-known for.
Some songs are unmistakably Simpson: twangy guitar and a gentle string accompaniment, a sad, nostalgic look back at days when the West was still wild and Dood needed to know the lay of the land if he was to get over that next ridge alive. Other songs, like Juanita, are the trademark of a new Simpson album: it hardly sounds like him, but it’s just another example of the spectacular range of the man that continues to catch critics by surprise. Juanita, which features none other than Willie Nelson, is a traditionally exotic South American ballad that brings to mind dark-haired women on white sand beaches and adobo villages. A romantic yet slightly mournful song, it’s a wonderful example of not only the creativeness of the artist but also his humility: it comes across as a song that isn’t so much bragging about the inclusion of one of country music’s greatest artists, but rather acknowledging Nelson’s musical skills on the guitar. If there’s one thing that country doesn’t need, it’s the braggarts and name-droppers of the music industry. All in all, The Ballad is yet another somehow unforeseeable classic hit for Simpson. Even though we know by now that every album release is just more evidence to Simpson’s passion for country and his skill and range within the genre, it’s never quite possible to hazard a guess at just what it is he’ll be putting out next. Maybe he’ll be venturing into the country rap genre next. God, I hope not.