Credit: Douglas Mason/Getty
by Jonathan Keefe Music Rooted & Restless

Sturgill Simpson | Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

January 15, 2021

The two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass succeed at the difficult task of making retrospective work feel both new and essential.

The concept of the “greatest hits” set moved toward obsolescence in the file-sharing era and has been made all but extinct in the streaming era. Leave it to a cantankerous throwback like Sturgill Simpson to try to reinvent the form as something that’s still meaningful in 2020. Simpson has never had a hit record on the radio, but he’s certainly had albums that have sold well and have earned mainstream attention and critical and industry acclaim. Simpson revisited material from each of his albums, including his early work in the group Sunday Valley, and re-cast his proper singles, personal picks, and fan-favorite deep cuts as Bluegrass throw-downs for Cuttin’ Grass Vol.1 and Vol. 2. The former set emphasizes material that is slightly better-known, as such things go: “Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean,” which was the single that first broke Simpson to a bigger audience within country music circles, is given an even more raucous arrangement, and “Turtles All the Way Down,” the unconventional centerpiece of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, surprises for how easily it aligns with a traditional arrangement, while the rendition of “I Don’t Mind” included here has scored more airplay at AAA radio than Simpson has earned to date.

Vol. 2 focuses more on deep cuts that Simpson has claimed he was “too afraid” to include in the first batch. The highlights of the second volume are “Brace for Impact (Live a Little),” which somehow hits even harder with its new arrangement, and the feisty “You Can Have the Crown,” which Simpson gave a few lyrical edits to in order to make it even more personal. What impresses about both volumes of Cuttin’ Grass is how purposeful the song selections are: There’s a thoughtful balance between the more straightforward songwriting of his early career and the progressive, metaphor-heavy writing of his more recent output, and the result is a pair of albums that each scan as coherent in their vision. It’s a testament to how robust Simpson’s writing is that every one of these songs holds up to reinvention, and his deep knowledge of Bluegrass lends the new arrangements a real credibility. Whatever his intention with these projects may have been, Simpson made these two retrospective albums into essential and truly new additions to his catalog.

Published as part of Album Roundup: Oct. – Dec. 2020 | Part 2.