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.
It’s a three-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Afton, Wyoming, up through the Wasatch Mountains and over the plains that separate the high desert of Utah from the wide-open expanses of southeastern Wyoming. Following I-80 east out of the city, the interstate cuts northeast to the town of Evanston, Wyoming, and from there on out, the drive is exclusively on state highways. And boy howdy, does it cover a shit-ton of highways. From Utah to Wyoming to Idaho, back into Wyoming, then somehow back into Utah again, and then one final switchover across state lines into Wyoming for the last time.
I’m in Afton for yet another seasonal job for the US Forest Service, serving the nation’s best interests (and, according to my signed SF-61 form, protecting the Constitution) by ratting on shitheads who leave open flames behind in abandoned fire rings. Of course, things are never quite that easy with the feds. After meeting my supervisor, who gives me the lowdown on the local cuisine (“The Chinese place’ll have you shitting through a screen door,”), I’m informed that HR in Albuquerque has disowned me as a federal employee. I plead with them to reinstate my status and maybe even let me get paid, and the man thousands of miles away on the other end of the phone promises me he’ll do everything he can.
The next day HR deletes my file from the federal database. Technically, this solves their issue. Not mine, though. Not fucking mine.
My supervisor sticks me with the wilderness trails crew, for the time being, mostly to get some basic training done (“Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals: How the GHS can Help YOU!”), but also some more fun stuff: small-motor training with chainsaws, learning how to oil a leather saddle from a man three times my age, stringing barbed-wire fencing in the mountains around the Greys River in a rainstorm. Basically, all the things I’ve been missing while I stacked liquor boxes in Salt Lake City for the state (read: Mormon) controlled liquor department.
The next few days are packed full of hour-long drives over dirt roads that are tough to maintain in the alpine environment of Afton, a town that sees snow every month of the year. The head of the trails crew drives the rest of the crew and me around, doing his best to familiarize us with a ranger district the size of a small state in no more than three days. Cutting across mountain rivers, up through passes, and across beautiful green mountain meadows, the roads are rough and full of potholes, exacerbated by the occasional deep muddy rut left behind by irresponsible 4-wheelers from the cities nearby.
It’s incredible, this experience of working in an American town that seems straight out of a Swiss fairy tale. Every morning, I wake up to freezing temperatures. Every night I fall asleep on a government-issued bed while freezing winds whip through the town’s main street, rendering water to ice in the early days of June. It’s an incredible job in a beautiful place, and as much as I’d love to say it’s hard but worth it, it gets a whole hell of a lot easier every day.
Spotify recently released a new collection under the title Indigo, a collection of country musicians that lie a little outside the norm. The collection is a little unusual in that it doesn’t tote a clean-cut collection of artists or songs and arguably doesn’t even really have a defining genre. Rather, it pulls from the pool of alt-country and indie country artists that are rarely a staple for country radio, with the addition of a few classics, such as Waylon Jennings, to cement the rough idea that surrounds Indigo. Spotify has essentially pulled these songs together in an effort to collect modern country music that incorporates characteristics of the classics. There’s a heavy focus on storytelling, and though many of the songs differ greatly from one another, it’s pretty easy to see the common through-thread that connects them all back to the country boom of the ’70s and ’80s.
Tyler Childers is the big name Spotify has decided to use to define the collection-slash genre, but even his own music is vastly different from the music of other artists included, such as Orville Peck and Miranda Lambert. It’s a little hard to describe, but think of it this way: it’s a collection of songs that can all trace their roots back to classic American country, but that’s where the similarities end. There’s an abundance of sad old bastards drunk at bars and telling off of exes, but each song is marked by the uniqueness the artist brings to the table.
The playlist has over 325,000 followers, but not everyone in the country music world is a huge fan. The folks over at Saving Country Music have a few choice words for Spotify’s re-branding of what was, essentially, formerly their Back Porch playlist, which though it was born from a slightly different idea, featured many of the same artists and songs. In fact, for some time, clicking the link for the Back Porch playlist brought users to the new Indigo collection. Saving Country Music also brings up another interesting point: this move on Spotify’s behalf seems comparable to company-exclusive content, like Netflix originals. By essentially “creating” a new genre, Spotify is in a unique position to benefit greatly from the artists and musicians featured on the playlist. If shit really kicks off, this could be “the genre Spotify built.”
Ironically, Childers himself has voiced opinions in the past that seem to put him in a bit of conflict with this kind of move. Previously, Childers has expressed concern over the new-ish Americana genre, saying it pulled attention away from the issues that the country genre as a whole is facing. Even the name of the collection is a little off-kilter. For a move that’s supposedly meant to “help widen the playing field for artists who span country subgenres,” the word “indigo” seems a little hoity-toity. It doesn’t really bring to mind square-body trucks or sun-faded jeans, but instead makes me think of some gastro-pub with string lights on the patio where you listen to some lady named Sunflower in a $400 ethically sourced wool hat play an acoustic guitar cover of a Taylor Swift song. Even Rolling Stone doesn’t seem to really understand who the playlist is targeted to, as some of the language in the article seems to almost talk down to country musicians.
All in all, it’s not a bad listening experience. Personally, I lean more towards Corb Lund or Colter Wall when it comes to contemporary music. However, there’s still some tracks that I’ve added to playlists of my own. That said, it strikes me more as a corporate move to astroturf a genre in order to exert a little more control over the world of country music. And that’s not exactly something that everyone’s going to love.
One of the biggest reasons I picked up a summer position on the Frank Church Wilderness a couple of years back was the add-ons the job came with. An isolated position meant I wouldn’t spend money on anything but essentials, plus the Forest Service office offered up another pro I couldn’t pass up: an all-expenses-paid whitewater rafting trip down the River of No Return. Honestly, when the summer began, I was under the impression it would be a lazy-river-type ride down a beautiful river in the Salmon Mountains, but when the River Patrol showed up for the first day of my trip, I very quickly learned that I had more than a few wrong ideas.
For starters, I was technically still working full-time every day on the river. Uniforms were mandatory, as were name tags. We were stopping at every single one of the 50+ wilderness campsites down the 102-mile river. It may not sound too bad, but it was also my job to be the guy to jump into the thigh-deep rushing river waters that, even in July, were probably 65 degrees at the warmest. Also, most days, I was doing it with a hangover that would kill a fucking grizzly. More on that later. For the most part, we didn’t run into too many people on the river, and the ones that we did see were always pretty friendly. One guy we rolled up on waved to us from the bank, shouted something, and then mooned us to show a nice little bruise he’d gotten from flipping his cataraft in a Class-III rapid.
Most encounters went similarly. The folks on the river were either young and just a little too full of life or older, coming up on retirement and still kicking ass and taking names on a river that claimed at least a couple lives every year. We once stopped to check in with a group and learned that the only reason they had reserved one of the least desirable campsites on the river was because last year, their group leader had been bitten by a rattlesnake there. He decided to spend thousands of dollars literally to go back to the same spot, at the same time, and try to kill the rattlesnake a full year later. A discussion on the biological and physical needs and behaviors of rattlesnakes followed. The snake was not found.
The nights were among some of the best nights I’ve ever had anywhere in my life. Each River Patrol member brought their own booze, and I had asked that they bring a bottle of Bulleitt Rye down for me. To add on to that, a senior member of the River Patrol, a gentleman whose name I shall not divulge due to the fact that he probably still works there, brought with him a bottle wrapped in duct tape with a plastic stopper. The first night, he passed it around the campfire and insisted that I drink long and heavy from it when it was my turn. As it turned out, this kind-hearted man had blessed us with a bottle of his homemade whiskey, which, no doubt, must have been quite illegal. If anyone were to report it, though, it wouldn’t be me because I’ll be goddamned if it wasn’t some of the best damn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tasted great, burned like hell, and definitely contained trace amounts of methanol, based on the skull-splitting headaches it gave me every fucking morning. So every night, we sat down, beer, whiskey, and cigarettes making their rounds, and talked about other Forest Service jobs that we’d had, or the People of the Public that we had to deal with, or insane experiences that our common foolishness put us through.
So every morning, I’d wake up, break down my tent, try to beat the hangover out of my head with the poles, slip into my soaking wet running shoes that worked, more or less, as water shoes, and shove the raft off down the river. I may not miss a lot about those mornings but damned if I don’t miss the hell out of that river.
In the summer of 2019, I took a job in the Idaho wilderness with the US Forest Service as a wilderness ranger. My duty station was on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, otherwise known, to the dramatic, as the River of No Return. The river’s popular with whitewater rafters and thrill-seekers as well as the more well-to-do that spend up to $10,000 a week to stay at Wi-Fi-equipped cabins with hot tubs and mini-golf. My cabin, unfortunately, sported propane appliances, propane lights, and a wood stove for heat. I shared it with two trail workers, Mike and Andy, and dozens of venomous spiders (who, unlike Mike and Andy, contributed nothing to rent payments). I went out there for a few reasons: I’d worked for the Forest Service for a couple summers in Arizona, the job paid well, it sounded fucking bad-ass, and the work schedule was awesome. Sure, I worked 8 ten-hour days in a row, but I got 6 full days off after. Since the duty station was only accessible by plane, raft, and a 25-mile hike, the Forest Service gave us all that time off so we could actually either pay upwards of two hundred bucks for a flight out or get some actual fucking hiking done. I opted for the latter.
Mike and Andy were both skilled hikers: Mike was given the nickname “Strong Mike” early on in our season, and Andy had once completed the 25-mile hike to our little guard station at Indian Creek in 10 hours, which was no easy feat over the rough-and-tumble terrain of Idaho’s Salmon Mountains. Andy liked to take his days off back in Missoula with his girlfriend, so Mike and I stayed up late one night, getting plastered and squishing spiders, and came up with a plan: we’d knock out the 11-mile hike from the guard station to Big Baldy, a nearby mountain peak. Big Baldy was about 5,700 feet above the guard station, so we figured that elevation gain over 11 miles wasn’t too bad. Of course, we forgot to factor in that we were fucking idiots. Big Baldy was also home to an old, abandoned Forest Service fire lookout tower, so we decided to ditch the tents and ground tarps and take the key to the tower with us.
A little background history real quick: the Salmon Mountains are well-known for mining and hunting activities. Remember when I referred to our lack of brain cells and computing power? We hadn’t considered what the trail looked like when it wasn’t on a topographical map. The Baldy trail was actually cut by trappers on horseback using plows, meaning it wasn’t really meant for people. Sure, it was only 11 miles, but of the 5,700 feet we had to climb, about 4,000 of them were right in the first mile and a half of that goddamned trail. When we left at 6am on our second-to-last day off, we figured that shit out real quick. It took us about two hours to get to a point where we couldn’t hear the river anymore, and it took everything in me to keep from turning around right then and there. The trail was in good condition, but loose, rocky soil on a 45-degree climb made for an absolutely hellish hike. After that first bit, though, the mountains opened up. We struggled upwards and watched the landscape as it transformed around us: high desert to aspen stands to alpine meadows to the tree line. Looking out over the Frank Church Wilderness, it was hard to believe I’d used a refrigerator last night. There wasn’t a single person or building in sight.
Some hikers had come in a few days prior off the Baldy trail and let us know that there was still snow on the peak, and the trail was partially lost underneath it. “The good thing is, you can just follow the spots where there’s no trees,” is something the dumbass had actually said to me. Great advice, chief! You know where else there aren’t any trees? Crevasses! Cliffsides! Cave openings! Once we reached the snowfall he mentioned, we opted to go up and over it on the pale, loose stones of the mountainside, which is where I damn near shit myself for about the third time that day, when some of the rocks rolled out from under me to plummet over the ¾-mile drop just below us. By the time I finally got to the lookout tower, Mike was ahead of me by a good solid mile, and I had to take a break just a few hundred feet from the damn thing just so I wouldn’t die on my feet right then and there.
When I’d finally finished pathetically struggling up the stairs to the tower, Mike had already started a little fire in the woodstove with the scarce firewood he could find. We got to work boiling snow on the stovetop for drinking water and ransacking the antiquated supplies the last lookout had left behind. We found an old container of Tang (every good hike ends with Tang, one way or another) and some apple cider mix packets and decided to relax after our freeze-dried dinner by mixing them with some whiskey Mike had brought from the guard station. We sat in the dark (real men don’t bring lights on hikes, and idiots forget them) and watched a thunderstorm roll in from the north, heat lightning and all. I wrapped the burst blisters on seven of my toes, rubbed my shoulders, and lay down to sleep on a mattress that was probably 75% mouse shit.
The next morning, Mike decided to head off to a distant lake to spend the night communing with nature and rediscovering himself. I found out later he actually spent his whole time there slaughtering trout in a nearby brook with a stick like a fucking caveman. This left me to complete the return trip by myself. The nice thing about a mountain hike is that the way back is always easier. Right? Right? Wrong, motherfucker! Turns out that going down a loose, uneven, steep-ass slope with a 30-pound pack is just as hard, if not harder! I ended up on my ass, sliding and scooching inch by inch until the trail leveled out by the riverside. I tightened my straps, wiped the sweat off my brow, and started the last three-quarters of a mile back to the guard station. About 25 feet in, I was rudely interrupted by what appeared to me to be the smallest, most ferocious-looking bear I’d ever seen. I was informed later that this was a little critter known as a “badger,” though I wouldn’t have fucking known it to look at the damn thing. The badger puffed up, hissed loud as all hell, and started running down the trail my way. Now I might have some trainings, maybe a couple certifications, but I don’t give a damn who you are; you don’t know what the fuck to do when you’re being run down by a pint-size omnivore with the attitude of a fucking Mack truck. So I did what came naturally: I got big as I could, I threw pinecones, and then I fucking hauled ass the other way. A few minutes of running got me enough distance that the bastard lost interest, and I could finally head home. I found out later my antics had been witnessed by some guys in a raft on the river who then reported it to the ranger on duty at the guard station, which explained the mocking calls I got on the radio after.
All in all, yeah, it wasn’t too bad a hike. The views were worth it, at least. Wouldn’t face down another one of them fuckin’ badgers, though.