smh– US country star Sturgill Simpson is particularly sympathetic to news of our nation’s lockdown. He sampled our infamous hospitality in the late ’90s when, barely out of high school, he disembarked at Sydney’s Kings Cross on a brief escape from his three-year deployment in Japan with the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet.
Not that he remembers a thing about it.
“I was blacked-out drunk the entire time,” Simpson, 43, says with a laugh from his hotel room in Nashville. “Young man in a white uniform. I don’t think I paid for a single beer the entire time I was there. You guys work hard and play very hard, I’ll tell you that.”
Since leaving the navy in 1999, an experience he addressed with righteous fury on Call to Arms, the incendiary closer of his 2016 Grammy-nominated opus A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson’s become arguably the most interesting artist in country music, thanks to an expansive sound and probing lyricism that’s earned him a reputation as country’s drugged-up cosmic explorer, or the semi-reluctant “acid country guy”
His new album, The Ballad of Dood & Juanita, which continues his dalliance with traditional bluegrass from the past year’s Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, is a concept piece about a Shawnee gunslinger (the titular Dood, who could “blow the balls off a bat” and would “stretch you up and burn you for callin’ him half-breed”) chasing down the man who kidnapped his true love.
Set in 1862, “when moonshine was outlawed smack dab in the middle of the Civil War”, the album – which Simpson calls an “eastern”, a rightward reassessment of the classic western – is steeped in the myths and folklore of his ancestors, coal-mining folk from the Kentucky mountains.
“I was trying to tell this fictitious history of my grandparents’ life and relationship,” Simpson says, “using the Civil War as a backdrop but having nothing to do with that. [Dood] is a man who’s carved out his own existence away from all that madness because he’s probably seen enough already, you know?”
It’s an evocative mood piece, complete with period-specific instruments (gut-string banjos, a jaw harp) and sounds from the open trail (crackling firewood, bubbling streams). If the result is cinematic, it’s intended.
Simpson says the album was inspired by his recent stint in Oklahoma filming a role in Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s coming historical western – set in the 1920s amid the murders of members of the Osage tribe – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
“I had just spent five months living in cowboy s—! I got a new coonhound puppy back in March, and I’d been riding horses and mules pretty much nonstop for the last year even before I went out there in preparation,” he says of the film’s intrusion into his musical mind.
“So when we were filming I was definitely in the mind of this lone cowboy, and when I was off-set I was hanging out with these wranglers and ranchers in Oklahoma. It was all very symbiotic, I think, in the whole thing popping in and popping out.”
A self-described cinephile, Simpson has previously embraced the screen’s influence on his music – his scuzzy 2019 album Sound & Fury was released with an accompanying dystopian anime film on Netflix. The Ballad of Dood & Juanita’s Indigenous perspective also evokes another existential western, Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man.
“One of my favourite movies of all time, man,” Simpson says. He calls Jarmusch a friend and had a cameo as a guitar-wielding zombie in the director’s 2019 horror-comedy flick The Dead Don’t Die.
“Most of the negative stereotypes and exploitative views that Americans have about Native Americans were invented by Hollywood. And I always liked Jim’s sensibility around that [in Dead Man] where it was like, ‘I dunno, maybe we should show what really happened?’” Simpson says.
“Even after the Trail of Tears there were still holdouts of Indigenous culture, like the Cherokee and Shawnee, still living in [Kentucky] that hadn’t been completely moved off yet to Oklahoma,” he says. “I wanted to represent that on the album too, without it being a fetishistic view.”
Simpson says his experience working with Scorsese is “the biggest [film] production I’ll ever be a part of, most likely”.
“It was surreal, challenging in a way I haven’t personally felt in a long time, and highly educational in a very short amount of time. Just to see how that man works and his craft, it really taught me to cut away the fat,” he says.
“Anything that isn’t serving the story is just serving your ego, so you have to get rid of it. So I went into the studio with that mentality on this record.”
At just 28 minutes, the album is tight. Simpson pins it to his desire to make it one cohesive piece, “like a simple fireside story, sort of thing, rather than trying to write nine potentially hit songs”. In the streaming age, where singles are key, it’s an intriguing gambit.
“Yes, it is somewhat of an antiquated business model,” Simpson says, laughing. “I feel like I’m sort of investing in the VCR business a little bit.”
There is, perhaps, one obvious single among the bunch – the affecting Latin-tinged ballad Juanita, featuring a guitar solo from Willie Nelson. Simpson had previously performed at Nelson’s infamous Fourth of July picnics, which the country icon has hosted annually since 1973. Did they become close?
“I wouldn’t say we’re close, not as close as I was with Merle [Haggard] or John Prine, but he’s definitely a buddy,” Simpson says. “It was just like, if I’m gonna write a Spanish love ballad about my grandfather singing to my grandmother, there’s only one guy on earth who’s gonna play the guitar solo. We sent Willie the song and he sent back [the solo] the next day. It was that simple.”
Simpson’s recent extended foray into traditional bluegrass may be confining for fans of his more esoteric work, but he admits that while he gets “bored very easily and fast”, his headspace remains locked into the form, for reasons both creative and personal.
“Bluegrass is extremely challenging music to play. What I get out of it is extreme musicianship – the people I’m playing with now are probably the best musicians I’ve ever been surrounded by,” he says.
“And also, as a singer, especially a singer from Kentucky, the pulse and metre of it just fits my natural cadence; you have to really push vocally from the diaphragm and sing high and hard. It’s almost like work if it wasn’t so fun.”
It also provides a “sense of identity”, he adds.
“Those were the first sounds I was ever exposed to as a kid around my family, the first music I remember hearing before I really understood what it was. In that sense, it’s highly sentimental,” Simpson says. “Plus, it’s cool turning people onto it who don’t necessarily think they’d like it. It can just be so beautiful and healing.”